In Hanging Garden (2005) Toshiaki Toyoda investigates the flimsy nature of reality. By exposing the underlying dynamic of the outwardly cheerful Kyobashi family, he reveals lives that rest upon a structure of secrets, lies and misremembered truths. The film revolves around Eriko Kyobashi (Kyoko Koizumi,) a wife and mother obsessed with creating the perfect, happy family. To that end, she insists everyone in the household operate under one strict rule: “We never conceal the truth, no subject is taboo. We try to share everything with each other.” On the surface, her social experiment seems to work; the family appears to be quite open with one another. But as the title’s reference to the Hanging Garden of Babylon suggests, this “garden of perfection” may be nothing more than a myth.
In fact, it is a lie. The unattainable happiness Eriko is trying to achieve is a construct created to compensate for the unhappy childhood she blames on her neglectful mother, Sacchin (Asami Imajuku.) Key to this construct are the lies Eriko tells herself – about the perfect state of her own family, about her horrible childhood, about her own happiness. With her ever-present smile, she clings stubbornly to these falsehoods saying, “If you stick to your story, it stops being a lie.”
Eriko’s meticulously assembled charade begins to crumble after daughter Mana (Anne Suzuki) is told at the family dinner table about her biological origins at the Wild Monkey, a love hotel. These two settings, the dinner table and the love hotel, become stages for certain kinds of discovery. As the arena of appearances where both the truths of pretence and reality coexist, secrets are ultimately revealed at the dinner table. Its symbolic opposite is the love hotel. Womblike with its red walls and round bed, the love hotel quietly envelops their secrets, and keeps them safe.
In spite of the Kyobashi honesty creed, family secrets begin to surface. In an attempt to either understand or recreate her parents’ tryst, Mana takes her boyfriend to the Wild Monkey for sex, while in the room next door her father, Takashi (Itsuji Itao,) is conducting an affair with one of his two mistresses. One of them, Mina, becomes his son’s tutor, but remains unaware of the father’s identity until she joins them for dinner. With the entire family assembled, the table becomes the battleground between truth and secrets. In a later scene, Eriko stands alone in the garden in a blood-rain deluge as certainty about her choices become clouded with doubt Memories, real and restructured charge through her mind, threatening the destruction of her fantasy world. Eriko’s discovery of childhood memories in which things were not as bad as she had remembered poses a heartbreaking question. Are Eriko’s memories of her mother, and therefore the construction of her life, entirely based on misperceptions?
Fans of Toyoda’s previous work will recognize his signature swirling camera movements, seamless blend of soundtrack with cinematography, and unparalleled use of symbolic color. That said, Hanging Garden has quite a different feel from his earlier work. Most noticeable is the presence of a female protagonist, a first for Toyoda. And unlike in Pornostar, Blue Spring, and 9 Souls, the action is psychological with no criminal activity or overt violence. Instead, aiming his attention at the family provides Toyoda the opportunity to inquire into the significance of the things we don’t say to one another. Hanging Garden brilliantly contemplates the ways we use memory and perception to reconstruct reality and the lies inherent in it.