Review: The Garden of Words

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Makoto Shinkai admits to not knowing why he is drawn to stories about koi–“lonely sadness” or longing. “if you want to psychoanalyze me, there might be various reasons, but even I don’t know what they are that clearly,” he said in our interview with him. Like many artists loathe to explain the motivation of their work, he declines to name any personal history or other factors that play into the common emotional chords he keeps playing in most of his films, including his latest, The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa).

It helps, of course, that no one in the anime industry is better at what he does, and The Garden of Words is his best expression of his life’s work to date.

Some critics, myself included, have accused him of repetitiveness. Since his first short film, She and Her Cat, and through Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and now this film, his stories have often focused on the travails of young people in unrequited love. Closer examination reveals that they are more complicated than that, but, often accompanied by common stylistic trademarks such as a piano-driven soundtrack (here not done by Tenmon), monologues, and the most beautifully lit and detailed backgrounds of contemporary Japan in anime, they do share similar moods. There has always been a suspicion that he is a sentimentalist who is only good at one thing.

What’s more, it is clear that his two lengthier films that attempted to break the mold–the time travel story The Place Promised In Our Early Days and the Ghibli-esque fantasy Children Who Chase Lost Voiceswere less successful: the former was curiously detached emotionally, and the latter a bit meandering, and both felt overlong. Shinkai seems aware now that his strengths are limited, and he has consciously chosen to focus on what he believes he is good at.

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Which brings us to The Garden of Words. Aesthetically, his backgrounds, the depiction of the rain, and the use of light are as strong as ever, though not terribly different from his past work. What has changed is the subtlety and unity he brings to his characterization and storytelling. The two leads, Takao and Yukino, do not speak very much in the film, despite the title; however, like the great short story writers, Shinkai is able to reveal so much about their character through small, carefully chosen details: the way Takao looks so stern and focused when he sketches and carves. Yukino, sprawled on her bed in exhaustion and despair, or kicking her heels on a park bench.

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Rain, and classical poetry associated with it, provide the visual and literary backbone of the story. Shinkai, who had previously done these sorts of stories only in segments of 20 minutes or less (She and Her Cat was 5 minutes; Voices and each of the three parts of 5 Centimeters were 20), is able to convey a complete story of a summer love in 40 unnoticeable minutes.  Every scene contributes to the whole, and not one moment felt wasted. If anything, the conclusion felt a touch abrupt, because Shinkai had drawn such a vivid portrait of two different people that I wanted to know more, much more, about their lives.

Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is the mature depiction of love, which is something far beyond the usual teenage romance, or even the accurately depicted bittersweet regret of 5 Centimeters. The kind of love depicted in this story is not romance in the usual sense, as Shinkai explained in his director notes (and a fine blogger at Beneath the Tangles  has written about here). Tinged with sexuality, yes; a genuine form of love, yes–but not romance in the modern mode. Takao is in love with Yukino, as he says plainly, and there is no doubt that Yukino also loves Takao in a real way. But what their love does is to help each other to, as another motif used throughout the film puts it, walk on their own feet down the path. They come into each others’ lives with very different sets of pain and concern, because Takao is still a teenager and Yukino is an adult. Both understand deep down that a conventional romance would not work, yet each also discovered that the other was exactly who they needed in that point in time. That time is temporary, painfully fleeting–especially once the fuller truth comes out–but necessary. That is why Yukino’s confession at the end is not that she loves Takao (though she does); rather, it is that he has saved her. It’s a lot closer to phileo than eros, more about care and attention and acceptance than kisses. It is sad and lonely because it must end, but that is also where its beauty lies, accentuated by the wondrous backgrounds that make even rain-soaked streets and train stations seem limned with light and magic. It’s sehnsucht, mono no aware, and koi all rolled into one. That it is conveyed in a mere 40 minutes is a wonder of compact artistry, and becomes more evident on multiple viewings.

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I conclude by returning to the concerns I expressed at the end of my 5 Centimeters review: is Shinkai a one-note director? Does he need to move on to do some other sort of story? A first viewing of The Garden of Words reinforced those concerns, because at first I only saw a love affair between a boy and a grown woman, something that was the stuff of my own adolescent fantasy (albeit emotionally accurate fantasy). But watching it at the premiere at Anime Expo, and then again to listen to the commentary, revealed the detail and subtlety that I missed the first time and that his motivations were deeper than simply telling a sentimental tale. Despite the beautiful backdrops, both Takao and Yukino are too nuanced, flawed even, to be mere idealizations, something that might be fairly leveled at some of his past characters (particularly the girl in 5 Centimeters). In fact, Shinkai states that getting Takao out of self-absorption and into seeing Yukino as a human being–rather than, as he put it “the key to all the mysteries of the world”–was the whole point. This is about the opposite of sentimentality. Not that it is not positive–it’s perhaps his most positive film yet–or not hopeful. But it’s far from being glib or cheap.

It is, in short, the work of a mature artist. Shinkai said that his next film will probably be science fiction, and my hope is that he will carry the characterization, storytelling, and concision  he has honed to such a refined edge in The Garden of Words with him, since his other forays into genre fiction have often been problematic. And perhaps the unmistakable voice or feel he brings to all his films is less uncreative repetition and more an auteur’s signature. As he put it, not every artist has to do every kind of work, and he just wants to do what he is best at.

Out of all his films, The Garden of Words is his best. And I am eager to see what he will do next.

Rating: 9/10

WataMote 4: You Can (Not) Be Touched

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Summary

After surfing the web for too long one night, Tomoko, knowing deep down that she won’t be getting skinship with a real boy anytime soon, tries other means to get into sexual situations: first by trying to induce wet dreams–which don’t come, except at the worst possible moment; second, by wishing that someone would at least molest her–which does not have the outcome she expected or wanted; third, buying sexy panties with help from her now-fashionable friend Yuu–which are exposed in the most humiliating, and unusual, way; and finally by buying a BL game and a “massager”–which is discovered by her father. It seems that Tomoko is destined to be “pure,” and not voluntarily either.

Tomoko: stalker in training
Tomoko: stalker in training

Thoughts

The episode opens with a scene that I can relate to wholeheartedly: spending hours into the night surfing the web, reading one random article after another long past your bedtime. Tomoko is a hikki in training! But the bulk of the episode is about sex, sex, sex, and unlike Nakamura’s railing about it in Aku no Hana, it’s not boring.

Let’s be honest: for a lot of nerds/geeks in high school, one of the most frustrating things is feeling like there’s no outlet for all those hormones rushing through your body. You’re not handsome/pretty enough, you’re not popular enough, no one will go on a date with you, and so while all those other people are making out and learning all about their bodies, you’re just left standing there with only sad fantasies to keep you going. And I can tell you that this is even true, perhaps doubly true, if you have a religious upbringing.

There’s both a refreshing and a troubling level to the things that happen to Tomoko in this episode: it’s refreshing in the sense that Tomoko is not the “virginal pure” type of high school girl that we often see in otaku-oriented anime. Her lustfulness, which gets taken to deliberately absurd heights, is much more believable on a human level, and all the more sad in that we know her efforts are going to be thwarted. (It doesn’t help that she comes off as creepy, even to Yuu.) Her unhappiness over being undateable and untouchable is easy to relate to for some of us.

Does anyone really think this way?
Does anyone really think this way?

That feeling is tied to the troubling aspect, particularly in the molestation storyline, where the story seems to make light of harassment and even rape by the end. Yes, we get that Tomoko is desperate, though part of her does seem to get that this is no picnic; and yes, perhaps the point is that she so starved of validation that her lonely mind can think that this is fine. But it’s not fine, and the show’s ambiguity on the point breaks the tension between comedy and tragedy that the show had negotiated so well. It wants us to laugh at her mindset, but I found it more depressing than funny, and so I couldn’t laugh at that segment at all. Can someone be so starved for touch that she’d think being molested is preferable to nothing?

(Note: I’d be interested to hear whether there are people who can answer that question, or if this episode is a fanciful projection, which is what I suspect it is. And if it is, that’s not a good reflection on the mind of the creators.) 

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We are still treated to the same incredible facial expressions as before, fortunately, and the same genius comic timing/cringe humor, particularly by the third part when she discovers the BL game and the vibrator. (Come now, that’s what we are supposed to think it is and is the basis of the scene’s humor.) Those parts did make me laugh, though the pain vs humor ratio is a lot higher overall. You begin to think, “so this is why Japan’s birthrate is so low…” and why surveys show that the Japanese are the least sexually satisfied out of major developed nations. Combined with the hikikomori phenomenon–and Tomoko is well on her way toward being one–the humor of WataMote might be a reflection of the sad state of affairs that many of the “less desirable” people, men and women, face for relationships. It’s not pretty.

The raunchiness of this episode, is, admittedly, sometimes both fun and funny. But it’s a mask for Tomoko’s humiliation and loneliness. There is one ray of light: we see her dad gently, non-judgmentally carry her to bed after she’s fallen asleep in front of the game with the massager still turned on. Despite her callous treatment of her brother and his reciprocal disdain, Tomoko at least still has a family and a real home. Right now, it’s the only place she really has where she can more or less be herself. Let’s hope she’ll be able to move forward even further.

Then again, he could be thinking: she's going to be living here into her adulthood, isn't she?
Then again, he could be thinking: she’s going to be living here into her adulthood, isn’t she?

Free! wasn’t an otome bullsh@t.

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I wasn’t going to watch this show. I mean this was primarily catering to otome (young girls). Yes, young otaku girls, or if not otaku, then anime fan girls. I mean, from the PV, it’s already showing its cheesiness that girls would typically jump onto. Yeah, when I saw the PV, I was like, “My Gosh, that explains everything.” Continue reading Free! wasn’t an otome bullsh@t.

I got those post-convention blues…

If you are of the geek/otaku persuasion, July is a busy month here in Southern California.  The beginning of the month brings along Anime Expo, the biggest anime convention this side of the pacific, and it is quickly followed by the granddaddy of all cons, San Diego Comic Con.  Each event has their own individual perks and problems, the least of which are the logistics of actually attending.

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Let’s begin with Anime Expo.  As the biggest Anime Con in the US, it easily takes up nearly all the Los Angeles convention center.  From the sales floor, to the (cosplay-filled) lobby, to the jam-packed panels and events, to the gaming area, you would be hard-pressed not to find something to like about the convention.  Even people who’s only anime experience is watching an episode of Sailor Moon 15 years ago, can attend and enjoy a tutorial on origami, take pictures of outrageous costumes, or learn about new video games.  The main issues stem from actually trying to do those things.  If you don’t line up more than an hour before your My Little Pony: Origami is Magic panel, chances are you won’t get in.  And it doesn’t help that the panel is in a room that fits 200 people, while there are nearly 400 people in pony ears waiting in line.  That’s a lot of pissed off Bronies.

However, in a way, that’s a good thing for the growth  of the con.  When different fandoms can share the same space and all attending are able to find something to enjoy, it opens up new experiences and cultures to learn about.  If the big cheeses then say, “Hey, we put the Skullgirls panel in this teeny tiny theater that holds 150, but the turnout was 500… next year we need to put them in one of the bigger spaces,” then that is a win of sorts.  Maybe it will also help them think and examine what the current hot commodity is before room assignments are dished out.  Research, then assign, people.  Also, letting their staffers know when to cut off a line could help too.  It’s a thankless job for those poor red vest workers, having angry fans in blue hair giving them the stink eye, but you would feel the same way after waiting in line 30 minutes, just to find out you can’t get into the panel.

For San Diego, it truly gives you a unique experience like no other, where you can bump elbows with your favorite movie star, get a sketch from your favorite artist, or even catch a sneak peek of the next big thing before it becomes the current big thing.  That is, of course, if you can get in the front door.  Due to its astounding popularity, which grows exponentially each year, it gets more difficult just to enter the hallowed halls of geek Mecca.  Registration for your badge has become such a chore in itself, soon the show runners will need to resort to a Hunger Games style lottery system to determine who can attend. Picture a dystopian future where every fandom must send two representatives into a death battle royale, and the winner’s group will have first privilege to buy badges to that year’s Comic Con.  Just imagine Trekkies versus Bronies, Marvel Zombies versus Johnny DCs, and Anime Otaku versus Twihards all duking it out for the right to stand in a line, to stand in another line, to wait 5 hours for a free t-shirt and then shake Seth Green’s hand.

Once you are inside, you can stare in awe at the elaborate setup of the convention floor.  Many companies spare no expense just so that they can have the biggest and best booth that is able to be seen anywhere from Hall A to Hall H.  Each is planned down to the smallest detail, so to be 100% accurate to whatever pop culture phenomenon they happen to be peddling. Of course, you can’t help but notice all these details and gaze at the decorative arrangements, since you won’t be able to move.  People pack into the San Diego so tightly, it might just be some titan’s plot to create the perfect can of human sardines.  If you wanted to eliminate 90% of the nerd population on earth, this would be good place to start.

Despite all this, once both conventions are over and done with, the realization sets in that you are going to have to wait another year for July to pop back around.  You begin to forget all the bad things and focus on the good stuff.  You think about that great limited edition toy you have been searching for, the one you just happened to find at a corner booth at the end of the show floor, and for a reasonable price.  Or that time you shared an elevator with Neil Gaiman, but you were too terrified to talk to him and tell him what an inspiration he has been to you.  And when you asked  the art director for Stand Alone Complex to sketch a picture of Major Kusanagi for you, and he wrote Happy Birthday over the top just because you mentioned it was your birthday.  These are all experiences that could only happen at a convention, and once it’s over you suddenly feel like something is missing from your life.  Something you had for the briefest of moments, but you didn’t appreciate it at the time, then it was gone.  So you sit and you wait for the next year roll around, wondering who you will meet or what rare trinket you will find.  This waiting, my friends, is what we call the post-convention blues.  And I got it bad right now.

Transcript: George Wada (Producer: Attack on Titan) Press Conference

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George Wada, head of Studio Wit (a subsidiary of Production IG) and producer of hit anime series Attack on Titan, spoke to the press at Anime Expo 2013. This is a transcript of his remarks, directly translated from the Japanese by Rome. The first record of this is contained in the live tweet blog gendomike recorded, which was based off the on-site translator’s interpretation.

There’s been a lot of Attack on Titan cosplay at this convention. What’s your reaction to seeing so much of it?

In just this past month, after making Attack On Titan in Japan, I realized that it is so popular even here in America!

Will there be more episodes after the current run of 24 episodes ends?

We haven’t decided if we will do a second season, but I personally want to do it as soon as possible.

Will the anime’s ending be different from the manga?

Basically, we plan to make the anime as faithful to the original manga as possible, but it’ll be up to director Tetsuro Araki and what he’s thinking about.

What attracted to you to Attack on Titan as something to make into an anime?

Because, first of all, I thought Attack on Titan‘s setting, where people are surrounded by walls, is similar to the psychological setting of current teenage Japanese boys and girls.

The economic situation in Japan is getting tough, but even so, it’s about time that kids in Japan learn to go outside, to go beyond the wall, where it’s not always as peaceful or safe…so [it was easy for] Japanese kids [to] invest their emotions in Attack On Titan, and that’s why it became popular among teenagers. So, I wanted more people to know about this by making this animated.

There’s a parallel between the complacency of the people who’ve lived behind the wall [for 100 years] and the peacetime attitude that the Japanese have become accustomed to. Up until now, the Japanese people have been content to remain within their own country [and tend to their own affairs]. But since the global political climate is changing, times have changed and people now have to go outside, and I guess inside many teenagers’ hearts there have been similar longings to go out into the world. And by making that kind of story animated, I want the people in the world to know that this is the No. 1 story that Japanese teenagers have been the most moved and touched by.

Where do giants fit in this allegory?

Well, perhaps, why is this story so popular? Because people may have the same feeling inside their hearts. You have yourself and then hit the wall that represents the limits of reality. And at that time, tragedy without reason suddenly attacks you unexpectedly. Those, allegorically, are like the giants.

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Did you select Araki as director? What made you select him as director?

Yes, I was one of the staff that selected Araki as director.

I have two reasons. First, Araki is the director whose work [ed: includes Guilty Crown, High School of the Dead, Kurozuka, and Death Note] has been the most about the wall between ideal and reality. Second is that Araki is a world-class master of action and visual scenes. Guilty Crown proved that to me more than anything else.

The first episode was pretty gruesome, even showing Eren’s mother being eaten by a Titan. Why open with something so brutal?

In the first episode, the most possibly tragic thing happens to Eren, at the hands of a Titan. I believe that showing this was absolutely necessary and crucial. For Eren, what happened was so sudden, absurd, and unreasonable; while fleeing, he says, “This can’t be happening! Why?” And through all that, all this happened anyway, in the first episode.The world is that cruel.

Why did you decide to make Attack on Titan through the spinoff Wit Studio, not Production IG?

While we were making Guilty Crown, we thought if we didn’t change how we produced anime drastically, we would be stuck in the same place and never able to move up to the next stage. That’s why we established Wit Studio, and if we hadn’t started Wit, Attack On Titan would never have had the great quality that it achieved.

What’s the difference between Production IG and Wit in making anime?

Well, in terms of feeling, there are a lot of sub-departments and teams in Production IG’s building. Instead, Wit rented a different building and there’s only one team. The sense of unity is very different than what we had at IG.

Why depict Mikasa having such pronounced six pack abs? Is this a conscious turning away from the moe aesthetic?

In Attack on Titan, we tried to depict the severity of battle environment. And in that, Isayama-sensei [the mangaka] says that if the characters have such great physical ability to move around, her body of course naturally must be like that. And this part is a reflection of Attack of Titan’s more realistic approach.

Also, [even] with Production IG, in the first Ghost in the Shell movie there was the last scene where Maj. Motoko Kusanagi fights a tank. In that moment, she becomes super-muscular. So for me, Mikasa is a continuation of a type of female character that includes Motoko and that Production IG has naturally gravitated toward.

Did you anticipate that Attack on Titan would become such a big hit?

To be honest, in Japan, the most popular anime are the ones with moe characters, a lot of girls in it, and no cruel scenes. I thought these were the shows that would make it big, so initially I thought Attack On Titan would be a minor hit at best.

But on the contrary, because Attack On Titan doesn’t have any of these three elements (moe characters, a lot of girls, and no cruel scenes), it spread among people who normally don’t watch anime. It’s one very important element that made Attack On Titan break through as an anime.

Why did you make Attack On Titan despite being aware of the risks?

Well, in a word, a sense of duty. Araki wanted to animate Attack On Titan, I also felt I needed to animate it when I was reading the manga, and Isayama-sensei told us that he wanted us to animate it. So, I made up my mind that we had to make this anime. So, it wasn’t from some marketing impetus, about how can we make money; ultimately it was the creator’s idea.

WataMote 3: Avoidance

 

SHOKKU
SHOKKU

Summary

Tomoko will go to great lengths to avoid socializing with her peers, especially if they are boys. She’d rather go without a textbook she forgot to bring than share her neighbor’s, which always gets her in trouble. When her umbrella breaks during a rainstorm and she encounters some guys at the bus stop, she’s so nervous that she runs to the bathroom in great fear and nausea. And once again she attempts to use her brother, this time attempting to catch his cold so she can avoid going to school. It succeeds but too late, ruining her weekend —made all the worse by her now coupled friend Yuu’s answer to a relationship quiz.

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Thoughts

What WataMote continually does, with caustic humor, is to drive home the point that ultimately Tomoko is responsible for her predicament. There’s a moment, for instance, where she thinks that her umbrella’s been stolen and her mind immediately constructs a dark profile of who the thief might be, that he might be having a relationship, that he deserves to die—only for her rage to be punctured by spotting the umbrella on the other side of the aisle. The paranoia and judgmentalism she regularly indulges in is a product not of genuine circumstance, but of her own mind. The same goes with her inability to ask a neighbor to share a textbook—something which has apparently happened repeatedly. She seems oblivious to the fact that she suffers more, not less, by taking the long, avoiding way.

I remember being that way. I’d loop around a school corridor to avoid meeting certain people. Or look away from another person hoping he or she wouldn’t notice me. Sit by myself while eating so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, or, more recently, bow my head down toward the screen of my smartphone and endlessly check the news.

What drove me was fear: fear of being laughed at, because it always felt like other people’s eyes were on you and others were just waiting for a chance to mock you, when, in fact, most people are ignoring you. (This happens at the bus stop with the two random guys, for instance. They can’t even understand what she’s saying, let alone thinking or saying bad things about her.) The truth is that most people are far too self-absorbed themselves to care that much about what you are doing. But the fear, which for Tomoko is paralyzing, not only prevents her from saying the right things at the right time or taking an easier way out. It also prevents her from noticing when people have been kind to her, as when she wishes “a guy would be nice to me” after a guy had in fact bought her a new umbrella and left it with her while she was asleep. Fear has a way of driving out love, and, it is love that casts out fear.

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What hasn’t been explored much yet in the anime—no spoilers, manga readers—is how Tomoko became what she is now. Why is she so socially anxious? Bullying would be a plausible, albeit predictable, reason. But her behavior seems to come less from bullying-induced low self-esteem than from a generalized anxiety and self-consciousness. Is it genetic? Is it her fujoshi-esque hobbies? Her plain looks? Middle school girls can be exquisitely cruel, it is true, and perhaps they picked on her for many reasons, leaving her only with Yuu to keep her company then. Middle school in general can be a hellish time for nearly everyone, and not everyone reacts with aplomb or gets over it so easily.

What remains is this, however: her social exile is, by this point, largely self-imposed. There is a real snobbery in her attitude toward others, along with fear. Her dealings with her brother are plainly self-interested, and he sees through it easily and dismisses her accordingly, cutting herself off from a possible source of strength and comfort. (One can’t also help but think that her sisterly attempts to get him to say she is attractive is not just desperation, but also a swipe at certain types of anime fans, but I digress…) Even a stupid magazine quiz, whose methodology is highly suspect, only encourages her to think to worst about herself. How can she be so gullible?

Which is why for me, her situation is not any less sad for being partly her responsibility. This show is always teetering on the edge of no longer being funny but being genuinely tragic, and given Oonuma’s record as a superb chronicler of loneliness (much of the ef series and the serious episodes of BakaTest and Dusk Maiden), I suspect we will see Tomoko’s soul laid bare at some point. There’s real hurt somewhere in there, and she’ll have to face it and confront it if she wants to move on.

Not even funny music can hide the real sentiment behind this scene.
Not even funny music can hide the real sentiment behind this scene.