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Friday, Oct. 7, 2005

Fun for all the family? Not quite

Kuchu Teien

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 8
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Some people have all the luck -- and some can't get a break. Toshiaki Toyoda falls into the latter category. On Aug. 25, after completing "Kuchu Teien (Hanging Garden)" -- the best film of his career -- he was arrested at his home for possession of 3.9 grams of stimulants.

News photo
Kyoko Koizumi in "Kuchu Teien"

In Hollywood, news of this sort -- talent in trouble with the law -- becomes tabloid fodder, but the career damage can be often managed. Thus serial resurrections of Robert Downey Jr.

In the face-conscious, scandal-shy Japanese entertainment world, however, drug arrests are bad news indeed.

There was speculation that the distributor, Asmik Ace, might pull "Kuchu Teien" from the theaters entirely. It would be somewhat like the Fox network dumping "Ally McBeal" because Downey went off the wagon yet again.

Toyoda, who debuted in 1999 with the surreal gangster film "Pornostar" (the two memorable images being a shower of knives from the sky and a bath full of tomatoes) and later directed "Unchain," "Aoi Haru (Blue Spring)" and "Nine Souls," still has his legal cross to bear. "Kuchu Teien," however, has been rightfully saved from straight-to-DVD oblivion; it opens at Eurospace in Shibuya on Oct. 8.

Based on Mitsuyo Kakuta's best-selling novel, the film sounds like yet another in a long line of black-comic takes on the Japanese family, going back to Yoshimitsu Morita's "Kazoku Game (Family Game)" in 1983 and beyond.

The Kyobashis are an average family (salaryman Dad, housewife Mom, two teenage kids) living in an average apartment complex in an average Tokyo suburb. Mother Eriko (Kyoko Koizumi), however, rigorously enforces a non-average family rule: everyone must tell the truth about everything. So when daughter Mana (Anne Suzuki) blithely asks early one morning how she was conceived, Eriko and hubby Takashi (Itsuji Itao) smilingly tell her they did the deed in a love hotel called Nozaru (Wild Monkey), which is still in business.

When Mana relates this story to her boyfriend (Ryo Katsuji), he is flummoxed -- his parents would certainly never say such a thing and he would certainly never ask them. Undeterred, she goes to check out the hotel, with the reluctant boyfriend in tow.

So far, so funny. Toyoda, however, does not allow us to sit back and laugh at his family of eccentrics -- instead he pulls the curtain on the fakey harmonious act to reveal the not-so-amusing dysfunctional reality: Dad is a feckless philanderer, Mana and younger brother Ko (Masahiro Hirota) are slackers who rarely show their faces at school -- and all three routinely lie to Eriko and each other.

Eriko is not what she seems either. While assiduously playing the role of the good wife and mother and carefully tending the flowers of her roof garden, she is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who blames her ailing mother (Michiyo Okusu) for her miserable, lonely childhood. Her ironclad "rule" and her "perfect" persona are her ways of controlling a disorderly reality, of pretending that the lies don't exist -- or hurt.

In expressing this reality, Toyoda's camera spins, rocks and sways to the point of vertigo, while his close-ups of objects (a blaze of candles on a birthday cake, a blood-soaked rose) vibrate with a symbolism that ranges from the vaguely disturbing to the outright menacing.

We get it, all right -- and then it starts to get to us. The Hanging Garden of Babylon decorating the lampshade over the family dinner table -- the film's first image -- may be a winking allusion to the familial paradise that is about to crumble, but soon we are inside the Garden's walls as they start to shake and fall, and in no mood for a giggle.

This approach is closer to that of Luis Bunuel, the master Surrealist and exposer of bourgeois hypocrisies, than that of the typical Japanese humanist director, who is always looking for the good side of even his worst characters. It's not that Toyoda despises his family for their various sins, though he exposes Dad, in thrall to his bossy longtime mistress Asako (Hiromi Nagasaku) and his fiery new lover Mina (Sonim), as a weasel and a wuss. But he strips away all their masks, as coolly as he might peal the cellophane from a stale convenience store rice ball.

The revelations are not all bad, though. Ko, it turns out, is an architecture buff, whose investigations lead him to the Nozaru, a temple of 1970s kitsch excess. Meanwhile, Mana is trying to maintain some semblance of order and continuity in her life by keeping a small stuffed bear in the Nozaru room where she was conceived (unbeknownst to the other guests, of course). A comforting presence, it is there for her each time she returns.

The most fully revealed characters, however, are Eriko and her chain-smoking, straight-talking, terminally irresponsible mother. Their ping-pong battle of recriminations and justifications, fought over Mom's blazing birthday cake, is as sparely poetic and piercingly real as anything in a David Mamet play.

Bust Toyoda, if you will, but don't bury his movie. Just as he deserves to work again, it deserves to be seen.

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