2008 saw the popularity of the family drama soar both in Japanese theatres and at festivals around the world. Ryosuke Hashiguchi returned after a 7 year absence from the directors chair to bring us his beautifully honest portrait of a marriage "All Around Us". Festival darling Hirokazu Kore-eda made a return to form after the failure of his 2006 jidai-geki film "Hana Yori mo Nao" with the multi-generational conflicts of "Still Walking". Horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even joined in by abandoning his usual frightening style to give us the straight drama of a contemporary family whose lives are complicated by a myriad of secrets in "Tokyo Sonata". Each of these films picked up awards at festivals worldwide and numerous nominations at home. There is even a buzz amongst critics that the success of these films herald a new golden age for the Japanese domestic drama made popular by such cinematic legends as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, if not a new golden age in Japanese cinema period. This may be true, and all the success that these wonderful films have enjoyed is richly deserved, but as I sat down recently to watch Toshiaki Toyoda's 2005 family drama "Hanging Garden" I couldn't help feeling a little sad that this wonderful precursor hasn't had the proper recognition for laying the groundwork for this current boom in the genre.
"Hanging Garden" takes us into the lives of the Kyobashi's, a family that operates under a unique motto: "We never conceal the truth, no subject is taboo. We try to share everything with each other." This bold social experiment initiated by the ever smiling matriarch of the Kyobashi household, Eriko (Kyôko Koizumi who also stars as the mother in "Tokyo Sonata") and has her and her husband Takashi (Itsuji Itao) answering their daughter Mana's (Anne Suzuki) and son Ko's (Masahiro Hirota) questions about how their mother lost her virginity and where their parents conceived them; but while the old adage "Honesty is the best policy" may hold up under most circumstances the fanatical brand of honesty practiced in the Kyobashi family has its members growing more and more dissatisfied and ironically more and more secretive. While the channels of communication may be open between Eriko and Takashi they share no physical intimacy which has him carrying on a number of extra-martital affairs behind her back with women who may enjoy the sex, but despise him for his hypocritical "honesty". Meanwhile Mana becomes obsessed with secret visits to the love hotel where her parents told her she was conceived. It's there that she takes not only her high school boyfriend, but also a chimpira punk (played by Eita) in the half-realized hope that she will get pregnant and in some way start her life over away from her unhappy household. Her brother Ko escapes from his family in another way, by creating a simulated copy of his family's apartment block in his computer, a world separated from his troubled reality and one echoed in today's "Second Life" phenomena.
For her part Eriko is probably the most disturbed and disturbing of the bunch. We learn through her frequent trips to visit her elderly but spirited mother, Sacchin (Asami Imajuku), about her unhappy and isolated childhood, her bouts with crippling depression, plus an attempt that she made on her own mother's life when she was a teenager. Watching "Hanging Garden" we quickly realize how Eriko hasn't just orchestrated the the family's "total honesty" poilicy, but all of their lives, their home, and her own genteel persona and ultimately their all lies. As one of Takashi's lovers, Mina (Sonim) says to herself during the film's climactic brthday party scene, "It's like a high school play."
One would think that "Hanging Garden", an adaptation of Mitsuyo Kakuta's novel of the same name, would be the last kind of film that Toshiaki Toyoda would produce. His previous offerings, the Taiyo Matsumoto manga adaptation "Blue Spring" about juvenile delinquents in a hellish high school and "9 Souls" about nine escaped convicts looking for redemption, mostly dealt with disaffected young Japanese and were told from the male perspective, but fans of his films (of which I am one) will have recognized how his gang members, murderers and low lifes always ended up organizing themselves into a secondary (and albeit dysfunctional) family unit, so it isn't much of a stretch from his earlier films to this much more mature work. He accomlishes this amazingly well and without sacrificing his trademark visual style often choosing odd camera angles, especially a swinging of the camera frame to mirror the swinging of a potted plant in Eriko's garden, to let us know immediately that all is not right in this world.
The tragedy of "Hanging Garden" isn't just on the screen itself. It was shortly after the release of the film that Toyoda was arrested for possession of "stimulants" and the ensuing controversy severely hurt the film's release and as of today seems to have ended Toyoda's feature filmmaking career. I can only hope that the Japanese film industry will, after a cooling off period, give Toyoda a second chance because his vision of the contemporary Japanese family is one that would fit perfectly with this new golden age of Japanese film.