Home > Entertainment > Film
  print button email button

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Japan turns on, tunes in, drops out

From the title of Leona Hirota's "Drug Garden," I imagined something decadent and violent -- yakuza shooting up and shooting each other.

Though this fourth film in Gaga Communications' Movie Storm series may be a "drug movie" (perhaps the frankest I have seen on this subject from a Japanese director), it is far from crassly sensational. Hirota's drug users, both the actors in her drama and the real-life clubbers in her on-the-street interviews, are matter-of-fact and even blase in their discussion and ingestion of illegal substances, from plain old-fashioned speed (shabu to all you yakuza movie fans) to new-fangled designer drugs such as Ecstasy (which is yet another form of speed, but never mind).

"Drug Garden" is less about drug use per se than about boho life in the new millennium, whose denizens strike out in bold new directions, while recycling behaviors, attitudes and even phrases from bohemias of decades past.

The film itself, in fact, is strongly reminiscent of Paul Morrissey's 1970 "Trash" -- that tedious, hilarious street-level look at life among the junkies and drag queens in the East Village. Both Hirota and Morrissey employ a technically crude, loosely structured "home movie" style to give the impression of real life being lived, though Hirota aspires to visual sassiness and flair, while Morrissey, under the influence of mentor Andy Warhol, was more inclined to simply point the camera and let it run. Both exploit the comic potential of their material, though Hirota's comedy comes more from clever violations of stylistic and commercial convention (classical music on the soundtrack instead of the usual, more salable J-pop), while Morrissey's derived from his '60s underground sensibility (drag queen Holly Woodlawn stridently faking pregnancy to fool a skeptical social worker and get on welfare).

Hirota, a dancer turned actress who debuted in the awful Peter Fonda vehicle "Daijobu My Friend" in 1983 but later recovered with an award-winning performance in Junji Sakamoto's 1991 "Ote," has probably never seen "Trash" (which is not even listed in Leonard Maltin's "Movie & Video Guide"). Little matter -- she is intelligent and perceptive enough not to take Japan's bohemia at face value as the newest, grooviest, most revolutionary thing going.

In a radically alienating society like Japan's, whose urban middle class has severed connections with tradition, community and family, the most out-there bohemians, Hirota shows us, are often the deepest-dyed conservatives, who recreate the extended families of their ancestors and take their style clues from the vamps of the '20s. (In one drug overdose scene, "Drug Garden" becomes a silent, complete with scratchy film stock, intertitles and Hirota gesturing pathetically like a D.W. Griffith heroine.)

As the film begins, actress Leona (Hirota) is living with partner Fukki (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), young son Mark and five friends. Shinken (Shinken) is a smoothly handsome, successful model, Chiru (Chiharu Sasaki) is a cute, unreliable model and Die-co, Margarette and Hossy, inseparable but constantly kvetching drag queens.

Though more fun than the typical nuclear family (how many "normal" kids hear, as Mark does, bedtime stories in rap, told by a real rapper?), this assemblage of social outsiders is not one big happy, healthy family. Her big eyes wide with terror, Leona passes out from a panic attack at the dinner table -- a result, a flashback tells us, of girlhood sexual abuse. Everyone, save Mark, gobbles various kinds of pills as though they were popcorn (even, in one of the film's funnier sight gags, at the movie theater).

Leona learns that she is pregnant and wonders whether to go ahead with a planned three-month location shoot in Paris, or stay home and get clean. She decides on the latter course of action.

The one deepest into drugs is Chiru, who would rather suck up white power than rest up for an important job appointment, and suffers the consequences. Returning home after a brutal dismissal, she finds little sympathy from her drag queen friends ("Yes, we're perverts, but we have a dream," says one) and ends up overdosing on heroin, in a hair-raising scene that makes smack look about as cool as death by strangulation.

Not much of a story? No, not really. But though "Drug Garden" may faithfully replicate the whacked-out mental states of its characters, its view of drug culture is sympathetic without being blatantly advocatory, true without being dully literal.

Japanese used to be proud of importing everything from the West but its social ills, drugs being high on the list. If this movie is any evidence, though, for today's Gen Xers getting high is like going to the convenience store.

How else, they might ask, are you going to make it through the night?

"Drug Garden" is playing at Box Higashi Nakano.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.