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Review © Alex Apple, 2006.

Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005, 114 minutes, starring Koyoko Kozumi, Masahiro Hirota, Itsuji Itao, An Suzuki, and Michiyo Ookuso.

2005 was a tough year for Toshiaki Toyoda, who in one breath, when he was busted for "stimulants" in his apartment, became almost the infamous enfant terrible of modern Japanese cinema. Kuchu Teien (aka Hanging Garden), based on a novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, was consequently released under somewhat of a cloud, emphasising the fact that Toyoda's now perhaps more notorious for his drug bust than his movies. Even the judge presiding over his case said that film directors have a responsibility to behave appropriately...

In any case, here is Kuchu Teien and a very fine work it is too. Notionally, it tracks a week or two in the life of a fairly typical Japanese family – a salaryman father, a hard-working housewife who also has to work a little to supplement the family's income, a headstrong 16 year old daughter and a sulky 14 year old son. The twist is that they're all completely open with each other and hide nothing – a somewhat unlikely state of affairs, you have to admit. Toyoda has apparently explained the title as referring both to the ancient city of Babylon, and referencing the rootlessness of Japanese society – plants in a hanging bowl or basket can't embed their roots in the ground, you see.

Synopsis

"We never conceal the truth; no subject is taboo. We try to share everything with each other. This is our family rule."

For his fourth full feature, Toyoshi Toyoda has abandoned the theme of the angry young man, examined in depth in Pornostar, Blue Spring and 9 Souls. Kuchu Teien is, on the face of it, more a drama, a character study, than a typical Toyoda genre flick. Yet within this beautifully structured and photographed film, there lies a dark soul. Ostensibly the story of a happy family, it becomes increasingly clear as the movie progresses that the Kyobashis are anything but. Despite a family agreement that they are all open with each other, the entire household knows the opposite is true. Mum Eriko tries desperately to keep up the façade, whilst secreting her own crippling depression, as son Ko (clearly an angry young man of the typical Toyoda model), daughter Mana (perpetual school non-attender; sleeping with her boyfriend in love hotels at 16; and posing for idol magazines) and husband Takashi (having an affair with two women, one a colleague of Eriko's and the other Ko's home tutor, both women dominating him sexually and emotionally) all play along despite each having something to hide.

Eriko and Takashi's marriage is crumbling; they haven't slept with each other in five years and, while Takashi is iching to have sex with his wife, she is anything but. He's a born salaryman, chasing crappy job after crappy job just to get a tiny raise to provide for his family. Eriko has to supplement the family's income with a job as a waitress in a soba bar, yet is not beyond dropping her colleagues in it with her boss if she doesn't like them. She's also perceived as a weak person, and is walked all over by one of her colleagues, begging for money. Yet in her head she perceives herself as wanting to be strong; there's a striking sequence in which she stabs a woman repeatedly in the head with a cake fork, only for us to find out immediately afterwards that the whole thing is pure fantasy – it's what she wants to do but, for whatever reason, just doesn't have the guts to.

Eriko, despite being outwardly happy and smiley, is anything but, and life on the housing project they live in is getting tougher by the day. Her mother, an arch bitch if there ever was one, is dying of lung cancer and not eager to undergo surgery, the only thing which will save her life. And, whenever she has to visit her mother in the hospital, she automatically regresses to being a subservient child. Visiting her childhood home also brings back memories she'd rather forget...

This isn't a movie that necessarily goes anywhere. There's, to be frank, not much plot development, the movie instead focussing on Eriko, Takashi, Mana and, to a much lesser degree, Ko, trying to maintain their public image and while hiding what's actually going on. If anything, the movie is underpinned by Eriko – an ostensibly weak woman who's easily walked over. Yet it emerges she had this entire life planned out for herself before she even met Takashi. Problem is, being a mum and being there for her husband, children and mother has meant she's repressed her own feelings down to the point where she really doesn't want to feel anymore.

She's aware her family is falling apart at the seams, but she's stuck in the bind that if she tries to do anything about it, she'll be left with nothing. Her mother, in particular, already thinks Eriko's a failure, while Eriko herself desperately wants to avoid the mistakes her mum made in her upbringing. And, as we uncomfortably watch Eriko's inevitable mental disintegration, culminating broadly in a breakdown over the fact that the only person (including herself) who remembers her birthday is her own witch of a mother, it's important to remember that inside there is a strong woman, one who needs help for sure, but one who nevertheless is the only one who has held the family together for seventeen years.

Towards the end of the movie, there's one scene in particular, with the whole family and one of Takashi's mistresses present, where the façade of normality comes crashing down. It's massively agonising to watch, but key to the movie's progression and enormously powerful to boot. It's worth the price of admission alone. The performances throughout, too, are close to flawless. Kyoko Koizumi is superb as Eriko, giving depth and weight to what could be an easily phoned-in performance (depressed mum with sunny façade? Why, how TV movie of you!). Itsuji Itao's weak salaryman Takashi is convincing (albeit a touch two-dimensional), and An Suzuki's headstrong teenaged Mana as petulant as you might expect. Kudos to Michiyo Oosuki as the malevolent grandmother Sakoto Kinosata, who is perfectly wicked and bitchy for the role she was cast in. And, as if you needed more persuading, Jun Kunimura even pops in for a quick cameo as Eriko's older brother.

What's truly striking, though, is that, more than any other Toyoda film, Kuchu Teien is stunning to look at. Toyoda has dropped his signature shot, ie the slow-mo walking soundtracked by shoe-gazey music. Instead, though, he's completely rethought and expanded his filmic vocabulary. It's a new departure for him, and while initially it's unsettling, it soon becomes quite hypnotic. It's nevertheless clear each shot has been thought out to maximise its artistic potential, so that while the movie's somewhat languorous pace might start to drag for some, there's always something amazing to look at. The camera often swings side-to-side, emulating the point of view of a hanging basket I guess, and even fully rotates around its subject on occasion. The urban landscape of the location shots are fully exploited by Toyoda and, while the movie seldom strays from the concrete labyrinth of the housing project, there is no predictable metropolitan dourness. Toyoda even manages to make a mall look cinematic.

Kuchu Teien is no popcorn flick, then. Instead, it's an insight into the modern family, how familial roots are put down but can be quickly ripped up again, how everyone lives a lie to some extent; it deals with being a mother, the responsibilities of having children, and with life in the tedious, anonymous suburbs. And, despite lacking the verve of previous Toyoda efforts, it's a visually gob-smacking and thought-provoking film which still contains the depth and panache present in all three of his previous features.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 8/10
Chills: 5/10, in a sort of ohmygodit'sallgoingtounravel, hiding behind your hands sort of way
Violence: 3/10, mostly in the form of wish-fulfillment
Bloody Rainstorms: just the one
Evil mothers: 1. Plenty for most people
Litres of tomato ketchup: will have exhausted most of Japan's stock for the 21st century

Films in a Similar Style: Dark Water (both the original and, in particular, the USA remake), Pornostar, Acacia

*** Stunning, if perhaps slow for some tastes ***

Kuchu Teien Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006

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Links

The official site with trailers and the like is at http://kuutyuu.com/ - as ever, don't expect it to be up for too long beyond the DVD release. There's also a mini-site from distributors Pony Canyon (in English!) at http://www.ponycanyon.co.jp/intl/mp/44.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dYOCp5X1Y8 - Trailer on YouTube.
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=61881 - DVD Times review the movie and Japanese DVD
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117929749?categoryid=2215&cs=1 - Variety do a pretty in-depth and incisive review (albeit, bizarrely, in note form)
http://www.dasmanifest.com/01/hanginggarden.php - decent and thoughtful review in German
http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/read.php?ID=22283 - in-depth review

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