I thought I’d share the introduction I gave at Wash U before we watched Hanging Garden. This movie is good in that it is a decent social commentary regarding postmodern Japan, but it is quite jarring and hard to stomach. There are scenes of imagined violence and a lot of conversations about sexual themes. Fortunately there is no nudity or otherwise R-rated content, but the movie is just over the top. Most of the audience left pretty shaken; the movie is just a downer. Some have compared it to American Beauty (which I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t say yet) but it at least has a bit of hope at the end. Sadly, though, the idea of familial love at the end of the movie was very out of touch with what I believe true, self-sacrificing love to be. It’s more than just paying the bills and keeping everyone together. It’s actually caring for the emotional needs of those around you, even if you don’t feel like it, even if you’re empty from pouring yourself out all day. At any rate, here’s the text:

Japanese society, much like our own, or any for that matter, has changed dramatically over the past 50, 20, even 10 years. Many of us think of Japan as a fragmented scrapbook of images – geisha here, Mount Fuji there, zen here, samurai there, and sushi everywhere. Sure, these are some of the cherished images of Japan that have intrigued the West over the past few centuries, only to be followed up with by Nintendo and Sony, anime and manga, fashion and economy. On the outside, we think we know a lot about Japan because we experience the excellent technical, cultural, scientific, and artistic imports that can be picked up in most of our media outlets, restaurants, and boutique shops. Japan is quickly becoming the progenitor of much of the cultural landscape in which we live; if I may be so bold, akin to Europe of the previous two centuries.

Yet, there is another side to Japan. Societally speaking, the rate of marriages and births is declining, the population is aging, deaths outnumber births each year, and the workforce is shrinking. Only until a few years ago, Japan was in the midst of an economic depression. As the promise of lifelong employment waned with each layoff, many sarariman were demoralized. After the bubble burst in 1993, productivity went down, and investments showed little promise. The Bastian of economic power, the Japan as Number One, of the 1980’s languished as they experienced global marginalization in the 1990’s, and the rise of China as the new economic power on the block.

As Japan’s former identity as an emergent world economic super power was stripped away, many began to question their own identity. No longer were they able to look back on their economic achievements which had sustained them through their post-war demoralization and ignominy. No longer could everyonel enjoy expensive, high-quality goods; their savings dwindled. Debt started to accumulate. Working hard no longer equated with success. Large, formerly unshakable firms, closed their doors for good. The promise of a better tomorrow was no longer a promise, but an empty lie.

Part of the post-bubble doldrums was the apparent unraveling of the social fabric; fathers still work long hours as is expected of all sarariman, often staying out very late to satisfy the communal code of drinking together with colleagues. This leaves very little time for the family. Some just cannot handle the pressure and end it all through suicide or just drop dead from exhaustion. Mothers languish at home and are left to raise the kids on their own with little or no support from the fathers. If they do join the workforce, it tends to be for low-wage, manual labor type jobs.

Young adults have also begun to question the demands of society. Some have abandoned the system of university-bound exams and cram school. Some choose to become “freeter,” or “Free-Timers” who take part-time jobs and stay at home, in essence, never growing up. Others flee Japan to study art, music, dance, makeup, and whatever else they have a passion for. (Just visit the lower-east side of Manhattan if you doubt it!)

For some adolescent boys, the specter of “not fitting in” at school, and being bullied as a result of any perceived differences, paralyzes them in fear – a fear that causes them to never leave the house again. According to Michael Zielenziger’s 2007 book, Shutting out the Sun, there are some 133,000 males who shut themselves up as hikikomori, essentially withdrawing from society and living in their bedroom, even into their 30’s and 40’s. They are often highly intelligent, deep thinkers who strive to be accepted for who they are, not what they are expected to be. They feel imprisoned in their own homes.

Social pressure also hits women, as they decide to not live a dreary life at home, alone to raise the kids and be under-appreciated by absent husbands. In the late 1990s, the phenomenon of the “parasite single” (obviously perjorative term due to their choice not to marry and have children) came into existence. These women actually enjoy themselves as they live with their parents, spending their salaries on luxury goods and high-cost vacations abroad alone or with other girlfriends.

And so, many Japanese families are living a life of quiet desperation. The movie we are about to see seeks to bring some of these issues to the fore. In Kuuchuu Teien, or “Hanging Gardens,” implosion of the family unit becomes a metonymy for society that seems to be a “hanging garden” – it has no roots and floats in the air. It is unnatural, without any firm foundation upon which to build. Themes of motherhood and pregnancy, sex and childbirth, estranged spouses, repressed anger, and shut-in boys are explored as the subtext to what seems like a perfect family life where there are to be no secrets, no facades, or tatemae. Everyone acts as if there is abject honesty and frankness, with there being “no taboos” at the dinner table…yet…there are many secrets and lies… It is a tale of subsistence, of doing whatever you can to hang together under the guise, and in the semblance, of what looks like the perfect family. I won’t say more, since you are here to see this film, not hear a critique of it.

Now, just one more thing, as is true of any social commentary, it is entirely unfair to say that “all Japanese” are living in X way or in Y conditions; every family is unique. While these issues are a growing concern for growing numbers of families, many families do not experience the levels of trauma found in this film…suffice it to say that Japan, just like any other society, is dynamic and is dealing with the vicissitudes of life, which to be honest, we must all experience, understand, and live with. While it is quite easy for us, sitting in a Western, academic setting to pass judgment on what we will see, it is important for us to remember that this film by no means gives us the full right to do so. While we can learn much from a culture through its media, seeing the whole societal picture is not possible.