This is the third chapter of my series “Dee’s Asian Treasures”. Take my hand and follow me into the world of Asian cinema.
My Secret Cache aka My Secret Garden (Himitsu no hanazono) (1997)
directed by Shinobu Yaguchi
Today, I will spare you the sleaze. After two consecutive excursions into the abyss of supernatural horror movies from Hong Kong, I present something more lighthearted. Himitsu no hanazono (translation: “The Secret Garden”) by Shinobu Yaguchi is a delightful comedy about the pitfalls of Japanese capitalism. The story circles around Sakiko Suzuki, a young woman in her twenties, is born into a middle class family that could not be any more… middle classy? Her apathetic mother, lazy father and the TV-drama loving, girly girl sister all present common stereotypes that can be found in any country all over the world.
Sakiko Suzuki is a peculiar girl, as she has no other interest than money, yes, even more than common girls… Seriously though, her affection to money goes beyond mere consumerism. If anything, Sakiko is not into spending money for useless shiny things, rather she prefers counting it and putting it in her bank account. This is illustrated by a scene showing her with a wad of cash in her hand while a dreamy stare appears on her face, complimented by a foolish, self-forgotten grin.
When guys try to invite her to coffee, she asks them if they could not save time by giving her the money the coffee would cost. Needless to say, that behaviour soon puts her into the role of a wallflower who is shunned by her peers. The fact that there is no other driving force in Sakiko’s life apart from her unusual fetish for cash poses another problem, as she is unable to make decisions for her future. Yet, one day, at a jokey comment of her mother about “bank employee” being the ideal job for the money-crazed Sakiko, she actually decides to pursue that career. Indeed, answering “money counting” to the question “What are your hobbies?” in a job interview at the local bank immediately gets her a job there.
In the beginning, it seems that Sakiko is genuinely happy for the first time of her life, spending the whole day counting tons of bank notes, showing off her trademark grin. Sadly, that feeling is fading soon, as Sakiko realizes that her favorite activity stops being fun when the money she is counting is not her own. Cue the return of inner emptiness. Sakiko is again at a dead point in her life; her efforts at work become half-assed and she daydreams about being kidnapped by bank robbers. Well, appropriately accompanied by the voiceover line “What are the odds”, spoken by Sakiko herself, that happens one day. Bank robbers take her hostage, and she is put into the trunk of a car with a yellow suitcase full of stolen money. It turns out that the robbers haven’t planned through things very well, because they drive right into the Japanese wilderness, getting lost beyond hope. The getaway car falls over a cliff and explodes, while Sakiko and the suitcase get catapulted into a river. Clinging to the floatable suitcase, Sakiko is able to survive the wild ride that leads her into vast subterranean caves. These thrilling events are all depicted with top notch special effects.
By some miracle, Sakiko survives and is washed ashore on a river bank, where a vacationing family finds her. During her convalescence in the hospital, Sakiko is temporarily headlining all local news, but as soon as the attention of the media has faded, she again hits rock bottom. Then one day she discovers a piece of a bank note from the robbery, which all of a sudden evokes repressed memories about the location in the caves where the suitcase sank into the water. This marks the point when Sakiko decides to turn her life around: From that moment on she is possessed by the thought of retrieving the suitcase with the stolen loot. Unfortunately, her plans are soon thwarted as she, negligently underestimating the dangers of the Japanese wilderness, gets lost in the forest yet again. Once more, she is found alive and has to start over.
Sakiko’s family is convinced that her recent misadventure will make her put aside her treasure hunting shenanigans for good. They could not have been further off the mark with that assumption, because as Sakiko sees a report on TV about a university geology institute that specializes in exploring subterranean caves, she spontaneously quits her job, takes all the money from her bank account and leaves her family and the rural area they are living in to become a student there. The geology institute turns out to be a rather insignificant branch of the main university, led by the eccentric old stone-eating (!) Professor Morita and his laid-back assistant Edogawa. After a while, Sakiko’s zeal makes her the most ambitious student of her class and thereby catches the attention of Edogawa. Dead set on finding the lost money, Sakiko takes courses in swimming, diving and climbing. After initial difficulties, first progresses are made, but Sakiko, who had lived a sheltered middle class life with her family, is confronted with new problems such as dwindling money reserves, Edogawa’s overly jealous ex and other nuisances of adult life that threaten to end her endeavour prematurely…
My Secret Garden is a sweet comedy that works on so many levels. The most obvious subtext of the movie would be its criticism of the excesses of (Japanese) capitalism. It portrays a society that reached a point where money is bereft of its original purpose and became an unquestioned deity. Sakiko is not a bad person, she is just a symbol for a youth that inherited no spiritual or moral values than the mindless idolization of capital from the preceding generations who where too busily constructing the capitalist foundation of the country. If this sounds dark, be assured, it ain’t. In the end, Sakiko’s quest for Yen is only the spark that leads to her journey of becoming a more fulfilled and generally better human being. In other words, good things arise from dubitable motivations, which is a sweet humanist message.
If you read between the lines, you maybe already got that it is also a “coming-of-age” movie. Thankfully, My Secret Garden avoids the most common pitfalls of that genre and is not a sequence of loosely connected “key moments” and cliched situations, but presents us its insights about life and its supposed meaning packaged into an unusual, appealing story without hammering home its message. Different styles of comedy are approached over the runtime of 87 minutes and work out remarkably well. A moment of subtle humour is followed by an over the top slapstick scene, and an astute observation of everyday life seamlessly changes to a situation that seems like it came right out of a cartoon. This is all happening in a natural and unforced fashion, to the delight of the audience. The style of the movie is also worth mentioning. While the cinematography is refreshingly understylized and bland at first glance, there is a simple beauty to it, almost like a Zen garden. It’s amazing how sovereignly the visuals underline the comedy aspects. There are some visual gags, like stunts obviously “performed” by mannequins and Z-grade models that stand in for landscapes.
The plot moves at varying paces, according to the character of the scene, from action-driven to dreamy and that works amazingly well. An array of different stylistic devices pop up through The Secret Garden: A voice-over by the lead character is occasionally to be heard, fast edited sequences alternate with long static shots and there are reactions shots with people looking directly into the cam, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience….wait a minute, doesn’t that sound a little “twee”?
Now I used the dirty word. Yes, “twee” or “quirky” are two overused and cliched attributes that could apply to this movie, at least for some parts. Yet, it is never over-indulging in its quirkiness and has a sincerity about it that many “Indie movies” simply cannot convey.
Worth a mention is also the great score, which is mainly characterized an upbeat folk tune as leitmotif, complemented by various dreamy interludes. The string instrument-heavy melodies are destined to haunt the audience days after viewing the film.
Every comedy is completely dependent on its lead character and the actor/actress who plays him/her, and Naomi Nishida totally nails it as Sakiko. That mix of ignorance, petulance and innocence that defines the character is perfectly captured in her performance. The kind of greediness she bestows Sakiko with is not a malicious one, but rather the kind that kids show off from time to time. Lest we forget, children are little anarchist bastards. It’s no coincidence that all kids that appear in the movie are portrayed as selfish and reckless brats. One scene sums that attitude up, when a boy who clashes with Sakiko gets punched in the arm by her, as she is still no real adult herself. The adult with the soul of a bratty kid is an old comedy staple. If well done, it ends up as a character that should be despicable by all accounts, yet turns out impossible to hate and becomes lovable in the end. A few people can do it, like Jerry Lewis and Will Ferrell, while others like Adam Sandler fail. In this case, Naomi Nishida effortlessly succeeds in completely merging with Sakiko. Nishida went on to a solid career on Japanese TV, but never snatched a defining role like that of Sakiko again.
No less convincing is the rest of the cast. Taketoshi Naito as crazy Professor Morita and Go Riju as his lazy assistant are particularly hilarious. Director Shinobu Yaguchi made a few other excellent comedies later on, like Waterboys and Adrenaline Drive.
No deeper insight into Japanese society is needed to enjoy My Secret Garden, but a few tidbits can be helpful to fully understand a few scenes. When the family goes on a picnic into the forest, Sakiko’s sister reads out aloud a sign that says: “Don’t throw your life away, it’s precious.” The forest they’re in is actually Aokigahara which won notoriety by being a popular destination for people committing suicide. The (sad) story goes that there are still many undiscovered bodies scattered over the area.
In another darkly humorous scene, Sakiko joins up with a few students who are waiting for the results of the university entrance exams being revealed on a display. As one obviously sleep-deprived student sees his matriculation number displayed, the succeeding joy is too much for his exhausted body and makes him break down with foam pouring from his mouth. While others give first aid, Sakiko spots her own number on the top position of the waiting list and slowly realizing that the breakdown she just witnessed will move her to the list of admitted students, she turns to the guy lying on the floor and gives him a thumbs-up while grinning. For a better understanding of that bizarre scene, one has to know that the university entry tests in Japan are unnecessarily and inhumanely demanding. Weeks or even months of intense learning are imperative to pass. The difficulty of that test stands in no reasonable relation to the quality of the education at the concerned university.
Furthermore is the scene where the bank robbers get lost in the wilderness not a far-fetched plot device, as in Japan are still many areas untouched by civilization.
My Secret Garden is one of my favourite comedies of all time, no doubt about it. For me it is a perfectly balanced melange of comedy, humanist fable and adventure film. It starts out laugh-out funny, ends on a poetic note and has not one dull moment. If you are looking for a film that lightens up your mood, then this is what the doctor ordered.