Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: The Garden of Words

This retrospective ends on a somewhat anti-climactic note with The Garden of Words. When I first got the Blu-ray disc years ago, I popped it in immediately, watched it, and threw in storage where it's sat until I got this retrospective idea to eat up two months of writing. Not that I meant to banish it away forever, but I watched it cold not realizing it was 46 minutes long and the title is kind of a misnomer. I meant to revisit it and never really had an active opportunity to do so until now. When I saw a second time, I had the same reaction that's baffled me. The movie added another layer of irony to its title: I'm left with few words except it's nice, the one thing I say when I have nothing to say. Now let me try my damnedest to elaborate on this not-quite-short, not-quite-feature-film.

There have been Shinkai works that zero in on small relationships, but this one might have the microscope pushed to its limit. The story focuses on Takeo, a first-year high school student in Tokyo whose mind isn't particularly focused on his schoolwork, but on crafting custom-made shoes. He lives with his older brother after his mother ran off, and is facing a further separation from his family with the notion that his brother moving in with his girlfriend is all but imminent. At the start of Japan's rainy season, he finds himself sharing the shelter of a scenic park with a significantly older woman whose breakfast involves beer and chocolate. After some awkwardness, Takeo begins a conversation with the mysterious-yet-seemingly-familiar woman. She reveals herself as Yukari, gives a vague hint as to where he knows her from, and mostly leaves it at that. Takeo does tell her about his hobby and offers to make her new shoes.

The two continue to meet on rainy days and share a special connection with each other throughout the rest of the month. For those who like their anime spiced up with action and tons of story development, you should know this takes up half of the feature. The second half continues after their separation, with their lives feeling forced into evolving past their usual day-to-day existence. Takeo finds out who Yukari is, and after he digs through what led her to taking Suntory time at 8 a.m., the perspective switches to Yukari as she tries to sort out her next step. I would get into more specifics if it didn't feel like I just dumped the entire anime into your lap in two paragraphs.

Needless to say, this is a smaller, far more intimate piece than your name. This is Shinkai at 5 Centimeters Per Second speed with a slower, more poetic work sans grand trimmings. This even lacks the metaphor 5 Centimeters had about a satellite exploring the great unknown beyond the Solar System REALLY being about growing into adulthood. Shinkai's trademark is two people separated by a great distance, and the distance this time is age. The special connection shared is taken by Takeo far differently than Yukari, and this is the crux of their conflict. Also, Yukari is a teacher at his school and that comes with own bag of issues (It's heavily hinted at within the first ten minutes as Yukari notes his uniform, but Takeo doesn't piece this together immediately).

Regardless of scale, The Garden of Words is hands down Shinkai's best looking work to date, including his recent juggernaut. There is imagery here that is absolutely stunning. The park Shinkai modeled the centerpiece of the animation after (With CLEAR NO ALCOHOL SIGNS POSTED, YUKARI) is incredibly recreated to the point where it no longer looks like animation. That overgrown branch lightly lapping at the pond is like every similar branch you've seen, but taken through an artistic, it's kind of magical. Especially laudable is the rain often utilized by the not-so-subtle narrative (You apparently can't have one of these Shinkai things with great atmosphere without the weather telling you exactly how you should feel). If you want to see where Shinkai has come from to where he is now, watch the scene from Voices of a Distant Star where he's desperately trying to create layers during a shot with a downpour to hide the fact that he can't create much movement to now, where he can even recreate the frizzy drops heavy rain creates when it hits the ground.

The weird thing about this is the writing suffers from the issues previous pieces by the same craftsman have, but in a different way. Shinkai has struggled with writing women, but this time, Yukari is a developed character. She feels like an actual woman and not just a character with enough thought put into her to make "the girl."  The problem arises when most of her quirks are meant to be METAPHORS (Capitalized for emphasis on how heavy they punch you in the face). Her deal with having alcohol and chocolate turns out to be they're the only things she can taste these days. She's lost the flavor of life. GET IT? If not, here's a conversation about how she's "forgotten how to walk." It just so happens she's talking to a kid who builds shoes as a hobby. There, did that metaphor knock you on your ass?

All though I really shouldn't be knocking that conversation so much as it is one of the few moments where they connect by talking to each other. I know I've said this before, but for something titled The Garden of Words, the conversations aren't really that stimulating. The meat of the issues are mostly tackled in monologues and the talks are mostly prefunctory until the final conversation (That doesn't take place in the garden). Maybe it just goes to show how special relationships that help people are maybe not the biggest things in the world, but there are heavy-handed moments like when Takeo measures Yukari's feet in an overly sensuous moment.

Speaking of which, yeah, we should talk about the teacher/student thing. This has been summarized as a love story by some people, and yes, Takeo eventually does say he's in love with Yukari. I didn't really see it that way. What it is is two people who have very different reactions to essentially giving each other a reason to go on with life. Takeo has never had a person who made him feel that way, so he interprets it as pure love. Yukari has lived life a bit more and has responsibilities with social lines she can't cross, but understands she had a connection that is both rare and precious. The ending handles it very well (With the one burst of Tenmon music you'll remember from his otherwise low key score) and it gets what needs to be expressed, even if the writing in the middle doesn't quite fill all the emotional holes leading up to it.

I've criticized a whole lot here, but I do like this feature as much as it seems like I don't. It's a pleasant and occasionally beautiful work feel could've been one of the defining movies of the director if it had a couple more drafts. As it is, it gets the point across instead of living the experience. I get what the movie is trying to express and sometimes, I feel it. it just doesn't get to the level of intimacy required for something like this to be truly special. I would still recommend people check this out, especially if you want to compare and contrast where Shinkai's evolution. And with that, my retrospective comes to an end. Thanks for indulging my nearly two months of re-watching DVDs and Blu-rays to make content because I didn't have anything lately that caught my attention (Um, Fuuka turns an insane manga into the most generic-yet-watchable romance I've ever seen. Not really worth filling up space). We'll catch you next time when I'm likely not discussing movies that feature luscious thunderstorms, middle school students who find their puppy love possibly becomes toxic as they get older, or the game of finding the hidden (yet vital) subplot. Until then, keep watching the extraordinarily recreated skies!


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