I think I ended up here by accident, as did most of us. Almost everything in my life that I now cherish are not things that I really planned to have at some point early on; I stumbled into them mostly by accident. But here I am, and if it was accident that brought me here then I’m grateful regardless, and I know of few other people who are where they are now because of a plan. Maybe a plan would just get in the way.
The Secret Garden is a comedy that knows this inside and out. Like all the best comedies, it’s actually about something remarkably profound that gets slipped under the door while you’re laughing. It gives us Sakiko, a faintly dim-witted girl whose one passion in life is money — not just spending it, but counting it, sorting it, stacking it, admiring it. This single-mindedness is not so much greed as a kind of innocent monomania: when a prospective boyfriend offers to buy her coffee, she says. “Why not just give me the money?” Eventually, she ends up in what is probably the best possible place for someone like her: a bank, where she counts money all day long.
Sakiko loves money, and finds out just how deep her love runs when five hundred
million yen go missing at the bottom of a river from a botched robbery.
The thrill wears off quicker than she thinks, and before long she’s fantasizing about … oh, something exciting, like gunmen bursting in and robbing the place and taking her hostage. She doesn’t have long to wait before exactly that happens. Her kidnappers drive up into the mountains to hide, but drive the car into a ravine by mistake. The car explodes, and she and a suitcase stuffed with cash are blown free and dropped into a deep underground river. She somehow makes it out, and her ordeal makes her into a celebrity for a while — but she can’t stop thinking about the suitcase full of money. It’s got to be down there, somewhere: when she collects press clippings about the incident, everyone seems to be of the opinion that it all burned.
She thinks. She borrows books from the library, tears articles out of magazines, covers most of one wall of her room with a map of the area. Going back to work holds no interest for her now. She gets in touch with a kindly old geology professor and his younger, perpetually baffled assistant, and waves her homemade map under their noses. They’re impressed by her enthusiasm (especially since enthusiasm is about all she has going for her, in their eyes), and ask her to enroll. She does, and aces out the rest of the class for a coveted scholarship, just as she also outdoes everyone else in a swimming meet and a rock-climbing competition. At the same time, she’s also spending what money she does have like water — on surveying equipment, mostly — and haplessly dives headlong into one job after another (like a hilarious stint at a hostess club) to make up for it.
All of the steps of the plan that Sakiko devises to get the money
slowly begin to bend the arrow of her life in a different direction.
The pattern soon becomes clear: Even though she could conceivably earn as much money as there is sitting at the bottom of the river, or do things that make money almost irrelevant — like become the world champion amateur women’s rock climber — the only thing that matters is meeting this goal. A less ambitious movie would have glossed over that fact or dealt with in the wrong light, but the movie understands her, and makes her into an object of genuine sympathy and affection, not contempt. She will do literally anything to get the money, and that makes us want to see what she’ll do next since she’s so cheerfully heedless of everything else. There is a constant amount of built-in humor in the way she asks for the most outlandish things with a straight face.
Garden was made on a small budget and it shows, but at the same time that gives it a lovable quality that a more expensive movie might not have exuded. What makes the movie work best is its peculiar tone, set by Naomi Nishida’s performance as Sakiko. She plays the character as if she were perpetually dazed by life, as if anything except money itself was an annoyance that needs to be done away with. When she discovers she’s actually capable of other things, it’s as startling to her as it is to the people around her — especially her long-suffering family, who live in terror of her next mad dash in a different direction. She’s an embodiment of yet another aphorism, actually, the one about how some people blunder across the truth but pick themselves up and keep going as if nothing had happened.
Eventually Sakiko does realize that the best things in life can come without plans,
but the movie has as much fun getting there as it possibly can.
The last time I saw a movie like Garden was Space Travelers, another movie about life being what happens when you’re making other plans and reinventing yourself on the fly. Garden is not quite as cosmic as that movie, and there are times when it does flag a bit — especially at the end, which feels a little too abrupt. Then again, maybe a more ambitiously-assembled movie would have felt top-heavy. Garden accomplishes everything it sets out to do in its own modest and winning way, which is more than a lot of other films can claim. The director, Shinobu Yaguchi, was also responsible for Adrenaline Drive (which I loved) and Down the Drain (which I did not), and Garden has the same awestruck sense of fate working in mysterious ways as the first of those two movies.