Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Director Masashi Yamamoto has made a career of exploring the lunatic fringes and grimy underbelly of Japanese society in his over 25 years as a filmmaker. From his 1982 film “Carnival of the Night” to his most well known piece, 1997’s “Junk Food” Yamamoto takes us past the surface gloss of neon, Shinto shrines, pachinko parlours and salarymen that most people think of when they think of urban Japan to something much darker and much more revealing. This doesn’t change with his 1987 film “Robinson’s Garden”, a powerful allegorical tale of the short term wonders and the ultimate taboo of stepping outside Japanese status quo.
When we first meet Kumi (Kumiko Ota, who also starred “Carnival of the Night”) she’s already on the fringes of society. A spiky-haired, pixie-like woman, she lives in a dormitory and scrapes together whatever money she can by holding garage sales and selling drugs with her best friend. The punk rockers, artists, and misfit gaijin that whirl around Kumi have created their own bohemian subculture, a predecessor to today’s “freeter” phenomena, and the antithesis to the materialistic, bubble economy goliath that was 1980’s Japan.
One afternoon on a meandering walk through the city Kumi comes across a cordoned off piece off property with an eruption of trees and green foliage spilling out over its concrete walls. A few nights later she returns to explore and discovers an abandoned factory and an acre or so of overgrown garden behind the walls. Almost immediately Kumi knows what she has to do; after backing out of future drug deals and a trip to the hardware store she sets about creating another subculture for herself, a society of one.
Yamamoto takes his time showing us Kumi’s transformation from a scruffy urbanite to a back to the land hippy trying to cultivate her new garden and splattering the walls of the factory with paintings of flowers and rainbows, her childlike enthusiasm for her newfound life mirrored by the gang of parentless children who coexist with her on this jungle island in the middle of the city. Many viewers may in fact be frustrated by the slow and seemingly aimless pacing of “Robinson’s Garden”, but those that can either tough out the scenes of Kumi feeling out her new surroundings, or better yet share at least in part with her reconnection with something deep within herself; call it her inner self, god, or some Shinto-like sense of awe before nature will be rewarded.
While “Robinson’s Garden” is hardly a feel good, new-age exercise it does present a compelling case for the dangers of individuality in a society where the group is the primary focus. Kumi tries to open up her newly established world to her gang of old friends, but it’s an uneasy fit, but it’s the appearance of a mentally unstable old boyfriend who shares Kumi’s bed for a night that really signals the point where Kumi’s one woman utopia truly starts to sour.
As the rainy season hits and the vegetables that Kumi took such care to plant begin to rot in the garden Yamamoto’s modern day Robinson Crusoe begins to fall ill. The cause of her illness is never made explicit, but as I watched Kumi decline I couldn’t help thinking of AIDS and the religious zealots in the U.S. who believed that the disease was a divine punishment for people living degenerate lifestyles. In a much more secular country like Japan where it isn’t one’s commitment to god, but to the group that measures one’s “goodness” Kumi’s shunning of society becomes equivalent to a mortal sin, one that in the end is severely punished.