Hanging Garden (Kuchu Teien) Review
The Kyobashi’s are an unusual family, who believe in hiding nothing from each other, speaking with perfect candour around the dinner table about where each of the children were conceived and even holding a celebratory party for the daughter’s first period. However, all is not quite as ideal and open as it seems, and, coming from 9 Souls director Toshiaki Toyoda, the viewer would be right in expecting from Hanging Garden a similar mix of genre material and social commentary. Although it is much more restrained and than many have come to expect from the director, the focus here is firmly on the crisis within the Japanese family unit.
Despite maintaining an image of complete openness and trust, the father Takashi (Itsuji Itao), we discover, is skipping work and indulging in wild, illicit sex in love hotels with a number of other women. He has not slept with his wife for five years. She, Eriko (Kyoko Koizumi), is depressed by her dead-end job at a restaurant, not always successfully keeping up a front of the happy smile she has to wear, trying to convince herself that everything is well. Their children seem to follow in the footsteps of their parents, with the same pretence of honesty, but hiding the same little deceits. The son Ko (Masahiro Hirota) is reserved and a loner, wrapped up in his own world, but literally always just around the corner from where his father is conducting his little affairs. When he inadvertently stumbles across one of his father’s girlfriends, Mina (An Suzuki), and brings her back home with him to be a private tutor, the only person who is shocked is the father. The daughter Mana also literally and metaphorically follows after her mother. Fascinated by the location of her conception, she brings her boyfriends to the Wild Monkeys love hotel, imagining getting herself pregnant there and allowing herself to be photographed for pornographic magazines.
To say that the situation of the Kyobashi’s is a somewhat incestuous is not to imply that there is any sexual impropriety going on between them, but the fake closeness and hermetic existence that they exist in creates just as unhealthy a relationship between them. The whole honesty trip is clearly a front to cover a number of serious flaws and insecurities, and they all seem to stem from the upbringing of the mother Eriko. Having had a difficult relationship with her own mother, Eriko starts her own family to try and strive for the ideal she never had, intends to see that her children are brought up in a healthy home. It’s as false an ideal as the garden she cultivates at the side of the apartment – a rootless hanging garden on the balcony of an outmoded housing project – and symbolic of her attempt to block out reality. But the cracks are beginning to show, as Eriko suffers a number of bloody hallucinatory episodes that become increasingly disturbing and violent.
The subject of the breakdown of the Japanese family unit is hardly a new idea and Toyoda’s depiction of the inevitable collapse of the fake front that parents and children place upon their troubled lives through a series of bloody and nightmarish cracks in reality is hardly inspired, nor are the impressions of unmoored lives depicted through swirling, spinning camera movements. It’s inevitable that someone is going to crack – the safe bet is on the mother - and the whole sorry mess is going to be messily uncovered. What is surprising however, is that the director reaches this point about half-way through the film, and rather than the shock of the various revelations rocking the family’s foundations, we discover that they are all perfectly aware of the flaws and lies that they have been feeding each other, but more than happy to go along with the pretence. Getting this out of the way then allows the film to move beyond the example of one specific family and takes on deeper resonance and wider application as a critical examination of Japanese society, collective and individual memory, the roots and lies that modern society is built upon and the flaws that lie within it. This brings the film to a rather more ambiguous and intriguing finale.
Hanging Garden is released in Japan by Pony Canyon. There are two editions of the film available. A Special Edition that includes the film’s soundtrack and a Normal Edition. The Normal Edition contains two postcards. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in NTSC format.
As seems to be common with Japanese DVD releases, the contrast on this edition is quite low, the image grainy and soft, with colours looking rather unnatural and sepia-tones, with textures not being overly detailed or defined. I would suspect that the film was shot on digital video (though it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify as it the medium becomes more and more common), so the perceived flaws in definition, tones and colour could well be down to the manner in which the film was shot. Within those limitations however, the image is remarkably good. There are no flaws, marks or scratches and the image remains stable throughout, with no signs of compression artefacts.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes. Either would be sufficient for the film, which keeps the dialogue focussed on the centre channel with only discreet sounds filtering through to wider front and surround channels. Dialogue is clear and well placed in the mix, with no noise or distortion evident anywhere.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font and are optional.
The only extra feature on the regular edition of Hanging Garden is a Trailer (1:50).
The subject of the destruction of the family unit under the pressures of modern social values may be a familiar one in modern Japanese cinema, but there seems to be more to Hanging Garden than meets the eye. There are many other themes and motifs raised, on motherhood, on childbirth and pregnancy, on shopping malls, love hotels and suburban lifestyles – all of which combine to form an intriguing picture of Japanese society as a hanging garden without any solid foundation. Toyoda’s style seems to have evolved greatly - even from his much better-known and much-admired 9 Souls - towards a less direct and not so easily definable technique. The results are just as potent and Toyoda remains a director to watch carefully for whatever direction he takes next.