By 1987 Japanese society was at the height of Bubble-era consumerism. Everything was bright and exciting, money flowed freely, and everyone worked all the time. Meanwhile, there was also a flourishing of avant-garde subcultures among young people who actively rejected the salaryman straitjacket and sought for more individualistic freedoms in their lives. Masashi Yamamoto had begun his career with explorations of counter-culture life such as his 1982 debut Carnival of Night but shifts into a more metaphysical gear with his trippy 1987 tale of nature’s revenge and the costs of life in a solo commune, Robinson’s Garden (ロビンソンの庭, Robinson no Niwa).
Two years later, Junichi Suzuki would also draw inspiration from the tale of Robinson Crusoe in the Bubble-era farce Robinson on the Beach which is in many ways an inversion of Robinson’s Garden in which a low-level salaryman’s life is upended when he wins a brand new house in the suburbs but becomes the subject of class-based resentment from his bosses while expected to play act the “model family” as part of the developer’s ideal homes marketing campaign. Kumi (Kumiko Ohta) by contrast is a floating bohemian living at the beginning of the film in a multi-cultural commune and supporting herself by selling drugs of which she is also a user. Drunk and stumbling around in the darkness, she accidentally comes across an abandoned industrial complex and is bewitched by the garden growing inside its walls as nature begins to reclaim its own. Selling most of her possessions in a yard sale, she leaves the commune and begins squatting in the factory attempting to return to the land by growing her own produce and living entirely alone.
The bohemian, internationalist Tokyo that Kumi inhabits stands in direct contrast to that often seen in contemporary mainstream cinema, her eventual decision to leave this globalised communal society for ultra isolationism an intense irony. Then again, there is something of a negative judgement towards the aimless way she lives her life which extends to the wider world around her. Meeting up in a cafe with a friend recently released from prison, an extremely drunk man continues to have significant difficulty understanding where he is and what’s going on eventually picking up a table but unsure what to do with it. She and her friends are often described, and sometimes describe themselves, as “wacko” in their attempts to live outside of accepted social norms and it’s when Kumi invites her friends into her new private utopia that it first begins to betray her as a prayer circle and a pointless argument somehow provoke a mass brawl while Kumi remains on her sun lounger feeling the first pangs of an illness which will continue to plague her throughout the rest of the film.
This may in part be down to a strange painting placed on her wall by an intruder, but nature also begins to take against her best efforts as the seasons change and her large crop of cabbages, for some reason all she appears to plant, is destroyed by heavy rainfall which later leads to flooding. Best friend Maki (Cheebo) ventures into a basement and finds tree roots growing through it, listening intently to rumbling behind a wall she attributes to the presence of the subway but is later implied to echo the scrabbling of a ghostly otter looking for its family. A casual boyfriend who stays the night appears to have an episode of mental instability while exploring as if the environment has driven him mad while Kumi becomes progressively sicker with debilitating stomach pains and fever.
Yet the only lesson that we see her learn is that we are not the masters of our environment. With her help, nature gradually reclaims this previously industrial space filling halls with flowers and covering the walls with greenery. Even her pink moped lies rusty and half-buried while she furiously digs a hole with seemingly no way of climbing out unassisted. Meanwhile, a mean little girl that for some reason always hung around the factory, even at one point eating KFC in the rain, flies a model aeroplane around a sacred tree and trashes a toy birdcage as if playing in the ruins of a post-industrial world. Called to something older and earthier, Kumi retreats fully from the highly corporatised, consumerist society of the Bubble era but the jury seems to be out on whether her experiment in isolationism is success or failure. Yamamoto’s famous distain for logical narrative progression lends an absurdist air to Kumi’s continuing desire to return to the garden but captures the mystifying allure of nature in all its ethereal, if perhaps sinister, glory.
Robinson’s Garden streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
Restoration trailer (no subtitles)