Hanging Garden (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005, Japan). I went into this screening blind, not even having seen the trailer, based solely on something I'd read that put Toyoda's film on par w/ (or surpassing) Sion Sono's Noriko's Dinner Table. Though I'm not familiar w/ Toyoda's oeuvre (I understand his background to be visually-rich gangster films), Sono's is dear to me, precisely Noriko's Dinner Table, so such a statement was enough to latch my attention and draw me in. Upon leaving the theatre, I can subjectively say Toyoda and Sono can comfortably exist together w/in the realm of the family drama, that Noriko's Dinner Table is still my favorite, but Hanging Garden drew a visceral reaction all the same. Toyoda's camerawork is lovely: the title shot, through a leaf and soaring over the garden of the Kyobashi family's terraced high-rise condo, accompanied by a piano soundtrack, sets the scene. He spins the camera in slow circles, elsewhere, or floats it in extra-long takes, to denote nostalgia, rootlessness, and family banter where you're just waiting for the hammer to drop, or the first person to leave the table, or even blood to be drawn. All the tension in the film boils down to Kyoko Koizumi (who reprises the mother's role in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata), the smiling, steel-clad matriarch Eriko, tenuously grasping at this perfect family life. If she's not watering her jungle of plants, she's lining the dinner table, possessing the only housekey of the foursome. Dad Takashi (Itsuji Itao, aka Key Man from Yoshihiro Nishimura's Tokyo Gore Police) walks on eggshells around the emotionally distant Eriko whilst having a very active, secretive sex life w/ punkish, domineering Satoko and cutie Mina, who ends up tutoring son Kou (and who Eriko mistakenly believes is sleeping w/ her son, instead of her husband). Daughter Mana is your typical teenager (rude to mom, wise to dad) whilst skipping school and hanging at the plaza of a shopping mall all day, fearing bullying at school (and perhaps showing early signs of her mom's traits). Son Kou is withdrawn but very aware of what's going on in the family. Throw in Eriko's sometimes-hospitalized mother Sacchin, a fiery powerhouse, and a terribly awkward "birthday party" for Mina (the family, it's said, doesn't celebrate one another's birthdays, only other people's), and you've got a chemical reaction. Toyoda's handling of the soundtrack, and just sound in general, is also expert. Beyond the title sequence, his choice of sound reduction and amplification, sucking out all background noise to hear just dialogue, or muffling everything expect a torrential downpour, or footsteps, or just sudden jarring silence, maintains a sharp edge to this rather fast-paced drama. The tension is growingly palpable as the tidy family structure starts busting at the seams, and even Eriko's unbreakable smile fractures (in one part, she fantasizes about stabbing her petulant coworker in face, repeatedly, with a cake-fork), and the consequences of her manufactured happy existence, cloistered far above in the posh high-rise, are strained perhaps beyond repair. I sincerely hope this film is available for a wider audience.
Doman Seman (dir. Go Shibata, 2010, Japan). Are you familiar w/ Future Sound of London's classic Lifeforms album? From the iconic artwork to the diversely trippy tunes. Watching Shibata's new Kyoto-set film (whose Japanese title is just as beguiling, if not moreso, 堀川中立売, both a string of kanji and an intersection of bridges that has something to do w/ age-old sorcery), I felt as though I was trapped in FSOL's Lifeforms. From the moody, spacey soundtrack to the shots of urban life v. shocks of greenery, to the 1st thing we see, a young girl who seems to have conjuring abilities. At the Q&A, Shibata compared the film to Boredoms, Japan's legendary indie noise-psych-percussion quartet, and then everything clicked for me. Actually: my "aha" moment came during the film, albeit late in. As I understand it, a magical spirit comes to contemporary Kyoto as a yakuza named Abe, w/ his precocious daughter. He gets two guys — one a long-haired loser more comfortable in his undies than proper clothing, the other a dandyish, psylocibin-user who is homeless by choice — to fight the evils encroaching on society. I.e. Kyoto's pretty-boys beating up the homeless and this creepy shut-in named Terada who murdered loan sharks as a youth and now, ironically, works for a loan shark company. Abe's minions do this whilst wearing bathrobes. And the puppetmaster behind all the evil is apparently a shamanic character who runs Terada's firm and is actually a famous young juggler in drag and heavy makeup. At...least...I think that's the plot. So finally, near the end, Abe's minions meet up w/ the shaman, and the story reconfigures in a bunch of jump-cuts placing the shaman in the center of the action until she finally disappears. Their task achieved, Abe and daughter breathe a sigh of relief, and the music segues into the pounding crust-punk anthems of Tokyo's Abraham Cross.