Shibuya has been a source of inspiration for many a Japanese filmmaker this past decade. With juvenile delinquency on the rise and concerns over the plight of youth increasing, where better to set a topical film than in Tokyo's youth culture epicentre?
Such must have been the thought of former scriptwriter Toshiaki Toyoda when he set out to make his debut film Pornostar. Not the sex industry exposé its title would let one to believe (watch Rokuro Mochizuki's Skinless Night or Masato Ishioka's Scoutman for that), the film is entirely set and shot in Shibuya, turning its location into the microcosm which for many of its young inhabitants it undoubtedly is. In Pornostar, the world is Shibuya and Shibuya is the world.
Into that world walks Arano (former manzai comedian Koji Chihara), an enigmatic young man whose nearly catatonic mental state is witnessed by the fact that he bumps into anyone who walks in his way, brusquely knocking them aside without so much as a second thought. Arano quickly collides with Kamijo (played by former chinpira Onimaru), a young hot-headed club owner locked in a futile attempt to steer clear of yakuza involvement in his failing business. Instead of the seemingly inevitable clash, Kamijo recognises Arano's facility with violence as a useful tool in his battles with organised crime. Even though he is adopted into Kamijo's group, Arano never feels anything resembling allegiance. Arano is and remains amoral and impenetrable. The connection between him and Kamijo is based on tension more than on chemistry. When he drives several dozen knives into the torso of Kamijo's biggest rival, a yakuza club owner, it's anything but a sign of loyalty.
Although with Masashi Yamamoto's Junk Food it opened the floodgates for a succession of films about rampant Japanese youth, Pornostar could hardly be mistaken for attempting to portray the truth about Tokyo's kids today. The microcosmic Shibuya it shows is naturally a very one-sided picture indeed, with every adult character of any importance being a gangster and every adolescent on his or her way to becoming one.
Toyoda's game is played on an entirely different plane from for instance Akihiko Shiota's Harmful Insect or Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, both of which found their premise in contemporary social ills. Pornostar, with its wandering amoral loner who defies two warring parties in an isolated town, is closer in spirit to Sergio Leone's early westerns. Both in content (in which by extension it also resembles Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo) and in the fact that it carries its stylistic flourishes on its sleeve, somewhat too openly at times. Pornostar is in many ways a spaghetti western set in Shibuya, A.D. today. From Arano's defiant entry into Kamijo's circle, via the graveyard musings, to the final stand-off between the two nemeses on a deserted, heat-shimmering slope. Except that the poncho-wearing man with no name, whose guns speak louder than his words, is replaced by a catatonic, knife-wielding, disaffected kid in an anorak.
There are allusions to something deeper, though. The contemporary Shibuya setting was not chosen entirely without reason. As subsequent films would show, Toyoda has an affinity with youth and an interest in the way they relate to adults. On occasion, that affinity shows through in Pornostar. One of the more successful statements he makes is the symbolic use of a bag of heroin hidden inside the CD-tray of a portable stereo, a reference to the adolescents' corrupted core that hides beneath the harmless surface the adults see. If you don't pay much attention, everything seems normal. But all it takes for the truth to reveal itself is to push the right button. And if Arano is just another variation on the loner anti-hero, then his lack of expression and facility in resorting to violence - taking the amoral, wordless nature of the stereotype to its extreme - certainly make him the version for today's urban environment.
Pornostar is not a flawless film, but its one of those debut features that while being noticeably underdeveloped nevertheless shows a great amount of promise in its director. Although the style at times veers too much into manufactured hipness (the music-led slow motion sequences go on for way too long), Pornostar belies a deft and effective handling of visual symbolism, and a talent for directing actors. As Blue Spring in particular proved, Toshiaki Toyoda has certainly made good on the promise.