What follows is an expanded version of my review of Toshiaki Toyoda's Hanging Garden updated to include a look at the film's recent Japanese DVD release.
On first blush the news that Toshiaki Toyoda's The Hanging Garden, the follow up to the much loved 9 Souls, would be a family drama felt like a huge departure for the director. And in many senses it is. The setting and shooting style are dramatically different from everything he has done before and his regular stable of actors is entirely absent. But, looked at another way it feels like a natural, even inevitable, extension of his previous work.
Think of it like this: Pornostar revolves around an absolute loner lashing out at society. Blue Spring is still youth only, but it revolves around a gang of high schoolers, a sort of implicit surrogate family and the dynamics within that group. 9 Souls takes that explicit surrogate relationship and makes it explicit, forging a strong bond between the father who killed his son and the son who killed his father, while also - for the first time in Toyoda's work - introducing several strong threads revolving around the character's actual families. All signs point in this direction and by the time you reach the end enough of Toyoda's recurrent themes - latent mental illness and sudden bursts of fantasy - have again reared their heads that it's quite clear who you're dealing with.
The Hanging Garden revolves around an apparently perfect family. They are bright, their finances are sound, they have a perfectly adequate home, and - most importantly - they have an explicit house rule that they talk about everything honestly, no omissions, no subject tabboo, a point driven home by a breakfast time conversation about where each of the two children were conceived. But, of course, nothing is as it seems. Mother has a vicious streak. Father has a pair of mistresses. Son is very nearly a shut in. Daughter is experimenting with sex. And all of them have huge secrets tucked away from the others.
Shot with a restless camera almost constantly in motion to reflect how unmoored these people really are, The Hanging Garden is about the secrets we keep and how they gnaw away at us. It is a film about obsession, particularly the self obsession that consumes all of these characters and absolutely blinds them to what they really have surrounding them.
Trying to describe the film in terms of plot is a difficult matter. While Toyoda's earlier films follow fairly simple narrative arcs with simple goals driving the characters, things are entirely murkier here. His earlier films all revolve around people in motion, people with aims and goals. With The Hanging Garden Toyoda is dealing with people whose lives have stalled, people who are simply living with no greater goal than maintaining the status quo, which is after all how most of us live our lives. There is no one central event that drives the film but rather a series of episodes in each of the character's lives that gradually fit together until carefully segmented lives begin to overlap and things finally explode in the one truly honest conversation - a partially drunken argument at a birthday party - that sends all the dirt spilling over.
The Hanging Garden is a quieter film, a subtler film, than what has come before and will likely have trouble connecting with many fans of the teen violence aspects of Toyoda's earlier work. Nevertheless it shows his unusual gift for character and his ability to create seemingly simple films that leave you stewing well after the final frame. The performances are uniformly strong and Toyoda's keen eye is in full effect. Is this a new chapter in Toyoda's work? A continuation? A sign of what is to come or an aberration? We won't know until he returns from his self-imposed exile and brings us whatever is next but he continues to stand as one of Japan's most important young talents.
Though I initially reviewed this film as part of my coverage of the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival the film had already screened when I made my late arrival in Philadelphia meaning that rather than seeing it properly projected I was forced to watch it later on a low grade VHS screener tape. Having the chance to sit down with it again with the film in its proper aspect ratio and a superior translation only serves to reinforce the immense talent of director Toshiaki Toyoda. While The Hanging Garden lacks the genre hooks that drew many fans to his early work repeated viewings confirm that his skills both behind the camera and on the page have grown with every subsequent outing. The Hanging Garden is a smart, subtle film filled with beautifully wrought characters captured through a burgeoning master’s lens. Toyoda is surely one of the bright lights of the current generation of Japanese film.