In 2001, Toshiaki Toyoda adapted the juvenile delinquent manga Blue Spring into an irreverent film about how young men maintain secret lives away from the prying eyes of authority. His 2005 feature, Kuchu teien (Hanging Garden), tackles similar themes, but the approach is more head-on and the target is the modern Japanese family.
This time adapting a novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, Toyoda's Kuchu teien is the story of Eriko Kyobashi (Kyoko Koizumi), mother of two. The scene opens at the Kyobashi breakfast table. It's daughter Mana's birthday, and Mana (Anne Suzuki, Initial D) wants to know where she was conceived. While this would be strange conversation for most families, the Kyobashi clan swears to keep no secrets from one another. Mana, as it turns out, was made by her parents at a "love motel" called Wild Monkeys. This, of course, opens a whole can of worms for Mana, who isn't as pleased with the information as she hoped to be. Toyoda's camera pulls away from the scene, spinning and tumbling through the apartment, showing us details, exposing the corners of the Kyobashi home, while also inducing the sense of euphoria all of the secrets and lies are creating. Such is the nature of Kuchu teien: everything is off-kilter; truth has been spun on its head. Of course the family has secrets they aren't sharing! To claim they don't is to create the biggest secret of all.
Thus begins a quirky drama that plays out like a Japanese answer to The Squid and the Whale, where the wrong things are revealed and too much pain is left hidden. The interactions of the family are almost like a game of cat and mouse. While out on one of his infidelities, for instance, the father, Takashi (Itsuji Itao), nearly runs into his son, Ko (Mashiro Hirota). The boy is shadowing his father's movements, whether he knows it or not, leading him to take on one of his old man's mistresses, Mina (Sonim), as a tutor. Similarly, father's trysts lead him to the Wild Monkeys, where Mana is next door trying to recapture her own birth energy with inadequate teenage boys. Mana also openly spies on her mother, following Eriko to a rendezvous with a co-worker whom her lies have gotten fired.
On these little missions, very little is revealed about what any of the Kyobashies discover. That would be breaking the rules of the game. Eriko is the center of these charades, having been the one who invented them. In fact, her biggest secret is that Mana wasn't a mistake, she tricked Takashi into starting a family. Having a perfect family is a sort of obsession for Eriko, and as her son informs her midway through Kuchu teien, obsessions are bad things because they lead to our divorcing ourselves from reality. Eriko is as off-kilter as Toyoda's camera, and often the two collide when Eriko digs back into her memory or the image literally breaks down to unleash one of her violent fantasies. Eriko's fixation on secrets goes back to her mother, Sacchin (Asami Imajuku), whom Eriko feels deprived her of the family experience the younger woman is now trying to create. Ironically, it will be both the grandmother and the mistress, the two outsiders to the core four, that expose the pretense. Mina will stand as the symbol of the unsaid, and Sacchin will provide the solution. Old age has taught her that memories can be re-written, that one can dismantle experience and start over. The central question for both mother and daughter is whether or not the rewrites have already happened. Perhaps everything was not as bad as it seemed, and the true flaw of their life together is misremembering.
Toyoda's world is a fascinating one to watch, full of ever-shifting facades and stuttering denials. He guides his actors through his various parallels, encouraging them to reveal more through facial expressions and body language than the dialogue they speak. He also crafts a rather beautiful world, full of wonderful color and interesting locales. Most of the action centers around the apartment, the Wild Monkeys motel, or the aptly named Discovery Mall, creating a space that is as confining for the characters as their own social mores. The vertigo effect he creates is fabulous, and there are moments of visual brilliance throughout, such as Mina's escape from the routine or Eriko's final flight of fantasy.
At one point, Eriko defends herself by saying, "If you stick to your story, it stops being a lie." Kuchu teien supports this assertion, while clarifying that it's also important to understand your story. If you're going to live a lie, you have to make sure it's the right one. In a weird way, those falsehoods are the family ties that bind. When Takashi's alleged perversions are exposed, he asks his daughter if he'd have put up with everything the Kyobashi clan has to contend with if, when it's all said and done, he didn't love them. He may have fibbed, but he did it to keep them together, and in the end, that is key to their triumph as a unit.
This is a region 2 disc and so will only be compatible with multi-region players.
The transfer on Kuchu teien is gorgeous. Enhanced for 16X9 television sets, it preserves Toshiaki Toyoda's sharp colors and layered detail. When we are in Eriko's garden (the one from the title), every leaf is visible, and when we watch from overhead as the family members make their false confessions at the dinner table, each lie is apparent on their faces.
Two different Japanese mixes: 2.0 and 5.1. The sound on Kuchu teien is excellently done, creating a nice atmosphere. Lots of little sound details move through the various speakers, immersing the viewer in the drama.
The English subtitles are solidly done and easy to read, with very few hiccups.
The theatrical trailer is included on the disc, but nothing else. The packaging comes with two postcards, one of Eriko from the front cover of the DVD box, and one of the family (plus Mina) from the back.
Recommended. Kuchu teien is an intriguing story of how one family survives, exposing their quirks and their foibles and how one generation visits its issues on the next. With engaging performances and lush cinematography, Toshiaki Toyoda has put together a story that will stick with the viewer long after the credits have rolled, and you'll want to go back into it more than once to pick out all the criss-crossing action.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.