New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 地獄の花園
I checked out Office Royale based solely on the title, hoping for simply Battle Royale in an office setting, and if that’s what you’re expecting too — I am here to enthusiastically say you won’t be disappointed. The film was originally titled “Hell’s Garden”, but I think for Western audiences this title swap was a no-brainer, since it’s what got me in the door, and promises were most definitely kept. The film played at Fantasia, and will also be screening as part of the New York Asian Film Fest which is currently running. Office Royale is surprisingly charming and works as both a meta deconstruction of tough guy manga archetypes and a cartoonish brawler that’s rooted in this Mean Girls-esque world of Japanese office lady politics.
As the film opens we are introduced to the many warring factions at Sanfuji Co., Ltd. via a Lindsay Lohan-equse voice over courtesy of Naoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano), who is a self proclaimed “normal” employee. She then attempts to get the audience up to speed on this shadow world of street fights and corporate takeovers where the balance of power continuously hangs in the balance, whether it be departmental or company-wide. Think Anchorman, but all Japanese office ladies, which is so ridiculously hilarious. Also, the women who chose to battle via department or company also all exhibit some kind of almost superhuman abilities, which is not lost on our narrator, who makes the requisite parallels to manga/anime characters and stories. To differentiate the groups, the women also sport the rather flamboyant and badass biker jackets, which are typically the uniforms of Japanese biker gangs.
Like all stories like this, it all begins with the transfer student, but since this is an office setting we get a mysterious new hire Ran (Alice Hirose) who has an undeniable swagger and penchant for sticking up for those who can’t. She doesn’t back down when challenged by the local heavy weights and quickly rises up through the ranks, taking on all challengers that come her way. In no time she’s the top woman at the office, soon striking up an unlikely friendship with Naoko, who is of course is then kidnapped by a rival company who look to take over Sanfuji Co., Ltd. It’s never really explained how this shadow office lady battle world works in this respect, of taking over a rival company via street fights, but I just went with it. It also never seems to raise any alarms to upper management when hundreds of office ladies are battling it out to the death in the courtyards on company property, which has to be a liability and HR is nowhere to be seen.
Refreshingly the film wasn’t nearly as exploitative as I expected and is basically a gender swapped Shonen narrative. Both leads here just ooze with confidence and charisma and also are relatively believable in these somewhat over the top fight sequences – think more DBZ than Berserk for comparison. The tone here is rather light, and the film’s focus on friendship seals the deal for a story that unconditionally embraces the tropes and the trappings of manga and anime. This all of course builds to an unexpected turn of events and a great meta reveal in the third act, as we are introduced to the world’s strongest office lady who’s heard there’s a worthy challenger at Sanfuji Co., Ltd. Jigoku-no-hanazono: Office Royale was a bare knuckle blast. The film is a campy crowd pleaser that is unrelenting in its action set pieces and while the CGI here sometimes falls a little flat due to budgetary issues, it only works to re-affirm the film’s quirky charm and cartoonish aesthetic.