Hell’s Garden (Jigoku-no-hanazono: Office Royale)

Japan (2021) Dir. Kazuaki Seki

As we know, Japan’s culture differentiates from others in many unique ways, from its esoteric arts to its bespoke traditions. Even the business sector isn’t immune from this with the Office Lady (OL), a dispensable female worker drone designed to handle menial tasks and brighten the place up. Maybe it is time for an OL revolution!

Mitsufuji’s offices include 26 year-old Naoko Tanaka (Mei Negano), a model OL who is pretty, good at her work, and keeps out of trouble, which is just as well as the world of the OL is a violent one. Many gangs across the departments vie for supremacy – the three main cliques at Mitsufuji are run by top dog Shuri Ando (Nanao), Shiori Satake (Rina Kawaei), and Etsuko Kanda (Miyuki Oshima).

When a new arrival to the company Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose) with a reputation, the three gang leaders try to throw their weight around only to fall with great ease, making Ran number one on her first day. Ran and Naoko become friends, though Ran is still called to fight OLs from other companies and always defeats them. OLs from Tomsun Company kidnap Naoko to draw Ran in, but when she loses, something unexpected happens.

Good satire works if one knows the subject under fire, which is why it is a shame some people may not be able to see beyond the superficial comedy of Hell’s Garden. The main notion that OLs deserve more respect than being reliable eye candy is universal; it is the nuanced layers that will baffle, though this can still be enjoyed as a broad knockabout caper.

Scripted by creative polymath Bakarhythm, this film is essentially an anime – or if you prefer, manga – come to life in its presentation, whilst paying homage to many classic titles of the medium. Self-aware in its lampooning, Bakarhythm’s script deconstructs the convention of the macho hero story of shonen titles like Crows Zero through the meta adherence to the formula in exploiting inherent clichés, only the cast is female.

Yet this isn’t necessarily a feminist rally cry to suggest women should be allowed to be violent thugs in the name of equality, rather the idea of the girl gang or Yankees as the Japanese call them, is as ridiculous as male delinquent gangs. Using the professional world as the backdrop as opposed to the school playground is a commentary on the pettiness of office politics to include the cattiness of the ladies.

Naoko is a paragon of virtue and wants to stay that way. As she narrates the chaos at Mitsufuji, Naoko calmly ignores the bodies flying about in the background as she chooses her drink from the vending machine. Ran is similarly full of grace and poise despite her pugilistic tendencies, her skills being so immense she can beat a dozen women at once and not have a hair out of place.

Both should be typical love interest leads in any other film but here they serve a greater purpose as a spoof on comic book heroes. Whilst Ran racks up the fight victories against other companies, Naoko explains she is the hero’s useless sidekick, always in need of rescuing. At one point, she even foretells her own kidnapping whilst delivering her internal monologue, just one example of the knowing scripting.

There is a twist that comes out of this situation to upend the entire narrative, which not only later the complexion of the characters’ journey’s but helps put the life of an OL into a perspective that some may not have considered before. This is neatly crystallised when Ran seeks training from the first OL Sayo Nanase (Shigeru Muroi), who identifies Ran’s weakness not in fighting but being a weak OL.

Furthermore, the satire takes a cheekier twist as the main fighters from Tomsun – except for their leader, the Toughest OL in Japan Reina Onimaru (Eiko Koike) – are played by men in drag which is not acknowledged. This makes the one-on-one fighting a bit uncomfortable to watch but I’m sure most will see it a laugh, especially from them being deeply unappealing as ladies.

In a similar vein, it is the men who are the weak ones, with one gentle chap being the obligatory office dreamboat Naoko swoons over, which plays into the bittersweet climax. Also jarring against the theme of tough girls at work, whenever a man appears, their tough attitudes switch to girly pandering, possibly to cover their true personalities or a commentary on how OLs are expected to behave in front of their male overlords.

Director Kazuaki Seki cannily lays out the film in such a way the story and madcap humour is what draws you in, leaving the messages to be discerned in the audience’s own time. The final scene is the most we get for a blunt summary of the themes, the rest of the film is spent having fun at comic book’s expense with quick fire gags, both visual and verbal, as well as using the freeform irreverence of the medium to get bonus kicks out of the audience.  

One underrated aspect of the fight sequences is the camera work, with large portions shot in one take, following the actors around as they kick, punch, and fly about. While these are well choreographed, CGI also plays a big part here, since this is a comic book inspired romp.

Leading literally from the front, Mei Negano and Alice Hirose are both perfectly suited to their roles, box office pretty yet able to infuse gumption into their characters. Their chemistry is key to the film’s heart as is their understanding of an understated comedic performance. Eiko Koike’s cameo is also a highlight.

Hell’s Garden appears to be deeper than it looks thematically despite the odd narrative weakness, but can still be enjoyed as a riotous comic escapade, chock full of action, whacky humour, and a charming photogenic cast. And remember to be nice back at the office.

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