Anime Review: Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭 Kotonoha no Niwa)

Anime Review: Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭 Kotonoha no Niwa)

Please forgive my departure from the usual content of this blog, but lacking another avenue by which I may express the thoughts which have been bouncing around my brain since yesterday, I have decided to put up a review of Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words here. This will not have spoilers for the film, other than some heavy referencing of the trailer and known information.

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In a roundabout manner, this is a relevant topic for this blog, not least because the works of Makoto Shinkai have had a real impact on my own creative approach over the years. The beauty he depicts in the ordinary, and the emotions he is capable of stirring through his visuals and his scripts, are things to aspire towards.

When the chance came up to see his latest work, The Garden of Words more than a month prior to general release in Japan, and at a nearby Australian city (Gold Coast), I jumped at it. The fact that Makoto Shinkai himself would be at the Gold Coast Film Festival premiere sealed the deal, and I was booking plane tickets on the same day I learnt about it.

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Besides all the autograph fuss, it was a lifetime’s dream to be able to meet the creative genius behind the works that had so resonated with me over the years. His stunning visuals aside, this is the man who crafted some of the most unforgettable and poignant monologues I have heard in anime – lines that have remained with me long after the original viewing.

Starting with words

Fitting then, that his latest work is titled The Garden of Words (a rather more literal translation of the Japanese title than the English names of some of his previous works), because words were literally the starting point for this 46 minute movie.

Fifteen year old Takao dreams of becoming a shoemaker, funding his aspirations through hard work, while going through the motions of an education. At the beginning of the film, set during tsuyu (rainy season), he skips morning classes on rainy days and goes instead to Shinjuku Gyoen, where he sits at a pavilion and sketches shoes and feet. On a rainy morning, he meets a 27 year old woman there who appears to be skipping work and drinking beer.

“To me, she represents all the secrets of this world.”

“The 27 year old me is no cleverer than who I was at 15.”

According to Mr Shinkai, these two lines (which are present in the trailer), were the seeds for the characters, and by extension, the film. And these lines go on to define the characters, and their relationship, throughout the majority of the movie.

In The Garden of Words, no longer are the protagonists of approximately equal ages (as they had been in his previous works). Instead of the bittersweet adolescent longing separated by distance (Hoshi no Koe), world events/consciousness (Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho), life and time (Byousoku 5cm) or worlds/death (Hoshi o Ou Kodomo), here we have an “unequal” relationship from the start.

This film explores the feelings of a 15 year old towards an older woman – Takao effectively elevates her (he does not know her name for much of the movie) on a pedestal, something which Mr Shinkai explained was symbolised in the imagery. For Takao, this sophisticated and mysterious woman represented his dreams and his aspirations for growing up, an existence far removed from his childish reality. Through her, he is able to make a connection with another person via his shoe making.

But the problem of putting someone on a pedestal is of course, an inherent lack of awareness about their reality – something that Takao comes to realise. Mr Shinkai effectively constructs the woman’s character as someone who was “learning to walk again” (as stated by the trailer). What might strike viewers initially as an unbalanced relationship (older woman exploiting naivety of younger boy) is transformed as we, and the characters, come to the realisation that despite their differences, they were both in their own way, “learning to walk”, with the other’s help.

The characters’ need for each other, at least, is equal. With the end of the rainy season depriving Takao of his excuse for skipping school, Mr Shinkai evokes 「恋」, the longing in solitude that he previously wrote about.

That is not to say that their relationship, or for that matter, Takao’s dreams, are ever resolved – anyone familiar with Mr Shinkai’s past works will know to never expect neatly tied up conclusions in his films.

The third protagonist

「鳴る神の 少し響みて さし曇り 雨も降らぬか 君を留めむ」

The relationship between the characters is bracketed by tanka from Manyoshu book 11. This tanka effectively sums up their meeting during rainy days, and rain is, as Mr Shinkai said, effectively a third protagonist in the story – something which is very recognisable from the visuals, even when watching the trailer.

Rain is the “code” that enables the two to meet.

Rain is what transforms the garden from a tourist trap to an isolated space in which two kindred souls find themselves meeting.

Rain is undiscriminating in where it falls, and who it falls upon.

And rain, of course, provides the opportunity for some of the most stunning and detailed imagery yet. With every one of Mr Shinkai’s movies, you can see an evolution of the sophistication of his already outstanding background art, and The Garden of Words is no different. From the beginning to the end, I found myself catching my breath from time to time, from the sheer beauty of this work.

In his post-screening talk, Mr Shinkai noted a new way of colouring the characters, by using reflected light from the rain and the trees. This change is visible in the trailer as well, and serves to embed the characters within the environment.

At times, we even find the rain taking the place of words. Indeed, The Garden of Words is an exercise in restraint – there is no unnecessary dialogue. Often, the only thing on the soundtrack is silence, or the sound of rain, as Takao and the woman sit in silence, one absorbed in his sketch book, the other in her beer. Yet, even in that solitude, that relationship quietly builds.

Music

Even the background music, composed by Kashiwa Daisuke, evokes raindrops with its on-running and undulating piano chords, sometimes sinking into the minor keys, making for an elusive melody as random as drops of rain – sometimes gentle, sometimes frantic.

The Garden of Words is the first Makoto Shinkai film which does not have Tenmon as its musical composer, and yes, it is noticeable, especially when the first piece of background music plays in the movie. Kashiwa Daisuke opts for mostly pure piano in his pieces, with the exception of a beautiful track near the end which uses piano, viola and violin – a piece which for me has a similar feel to Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel, especially when the strings kick in.

That particular piece accompanies what really is the resolution of the story, and soars and subsides with the emotions.

The ending piece, Motohiro Hata’s cover of Noriyuki Makihara’s “Rain” (original composer and lyrics: Oe Senri, released in the 1998 album Listen to the Music), is also used effectively (just as how “One More Time, One More Chance” was used in 5cm albeit without the intense eye candy accompanying the piece).

The transitions at the end of the film in terms of the sound track are really well done, a perfect complement to a tightly-woven plot which perfectly builds contained emotions to a final climax.

“46 minutes is long enough to portray human emotions”

Representing a return from the feature-length 116 minutes of Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, one thing which is immediately apparently is that the plot of The Garden of Words is extremely well controlled, from its build up to its twist to its climax. This should come as no surprise, given what Mr Shinkai did with the 25 minutes of Hoshi no Koe.

Everything is there for a reason, and there are definitely lots of things packed into it, in those in-between moments, in every movement, in the symbolism. The “negative spaces” in the soundtrack, with their absence of dialogue, are also loaded with meaning – they function as more than blank spaces, but rather allow us to focus on the visuals as a vehicle driving the plot and characterisations forward.

Given it would be another 2 or 3 months before I would be able to watch it again (when the DVD/Blu-ray sees general release in Japan), I went into the film very conscious of its length, and the need to grab as much as I could from it.

I would probably recommend at least one rewatch (if not two or three rewatches) to get the most out of The Garden of Words. Those who do their research into classic Japanese literature and symbolism will also find themselves well rewarded, although the film is still very enjoyable even without that knowledge. (And if you’re REALLY good, you’ll even pick up a reference to a line from Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood.)

As a long-time follower of Mr Shinkai’s works, I think of The Garden of Words as a spiritual successor to Byousoku 5cm. It portrays a more mature, or a more nuanced way of looking at relationships, beyond hopeless bitter-sweet longing.

While taking into account the contemporary social context which surround them (at school, in their jobs, at home), Mr Shinkai created two characters who compellingly pursue their dreams and healing. He does not pretend to furnish the answers to their yearning, but rather chronicles the steps they take towards their realisation of those goals.

Other thoughts

Today, one day after I returned from the Gold Coast, I am still collecting my thoughts about The Garden of Words. Aside from that, I can’t believe I actually got to meet Mr Shinkai. He shook everyone’s hands, and talked to every single person who came up for his autograph.

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The session was sold out, and they had to move the screening to a bigger cinema to accommodate for further demand. He spent one hour before the film on the signings, then continued the signings for an hour and a half after the film, for those who had missed out earlier. He even drew Sayuri on the autographs for my sister and I.

The post-film Q&A session was also extremely informative, with Mr Shinkai providing further information on the crafting of The Garden of Words (for example, he had interviewed a lot of women in order to correctly and sympathetically portray the female character), some of the symbolism behind the imagery he used, and the role of the rain in the film. Some of the insights he provided in the session are included in this review, while others are spoilers for the film, and thus will remain under wraps.

10 Comments

  1. I didn’t realise the film was going to be 46 minutes. That’s surprisingly short!

    Still, good to get a first (and rather detailed!) impression of the film – normally I don’t read reviews until I have seen and reviewed a film myself… Still waiting to hear when it will come to other parts of the world (London specifically).

  2. Mezz

    A very insightful and enjoyable read.

    You should do more of these.

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