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

3 thoughts on “Review: The Garden of Words”

  1. I think eros was also very present, clearly aimed for foot fetish. Was it only me that my heart got jumped when Takao said he was making a shoe for a female, and then Yukino lent her feet to him? Uuu, I also wanted to trace her feet with a pencil. And also, she was clearly flirting with Takao, that hair twirling scene, how can she do that to a 15 year old boy? She is a little devilish, and not innocent and pure, but yes, 27 year old jukujo, so she knows. She is not a teenage girl, but yes, mature lady that I don’t say manipulate but toys a boy’s heart. Especially, making sandwich to her! Ahhh, poor mitsugu-kun.

    Yes, Yukino was a sad sick person, didn’t feel anything on tongue, but regained the taste after meeting with “senior lady” who brings obento for her. Probably ko-hi, sehnsucht, or saudade was more present in Yukino than Takao. So yes, Takao was saving her, but not other way around. Takao didn’t have the wound that Yukino was carrying. But I wonder if any adult could save her like Takao. Takao is 15, very innocent, honest, probably his mentality tells us “need to have children’s heart to go to heaven.” That heart saved Yukino, I guess.

    Yes, this is the greatest anime film I ever seen. The most beautiful one. And totally the story of ko-hi.

    1. I don’t deny that there was something quote erotic about the foot scene: Shinkai himself admits he “sexed up” that part in the commentary after all! Takao is attracted to her physically, no doubt. It’s simply not the main feature of their relationship, in my view. Yukino’s stance I think is a little more complicated. Her affection for Takao comes both out of her own needs (for validation, respect, someone who listens) but also to her attraction to Takao’s character: straightforward, hardworking, and ambitious, which perhaps didn’t characterize her past boyfriends. Takao is a boyfriend substitute, but only sort of. She knows their age difference is too great for it to be a full relationship, and her flirtiness is less a Mrs. Robinson-style seduction than perhaps an encouragement to him that: yes, you are a worthwhile and attractive young man.

      The way Takao “saves” her is not just by being with her in her time of need, but also in showing her that there are good, trustworthy people out there. To restore her faith in humanity a little, as it were. Knowing that, she can move on in her life and resume her teaching career elsewhere, even though it breaks her heart and Takao’s that they have to part. And for Takao, he may not be “saved” from the same ennui and stagnation that Yukino was going through, but her presence gave him direction. That’s why he continues to make the shoes for her, and resolves to meet her again one day.

  2. I’m 69, of English/Canadian heritage. I love stories and literature, and my degree (a long time ago) was in English literature. With those perspectives, I marvelled at this beautiful, beautiful film, and I have watched it many times. I think I have loved it a little more each time.

    My one single disappointment was in being unable to identify the birds in the film to species. They are inventions, seemingly so real, yet not “really” real: they are created impressionistically—as are the people.

    The story and the film and the music are deep and real and exquisite. Twelve years between lovers is not too much, as time goes by, but in this story it ensures the boy’s vulnerability. Are they lovers? Well, that depends on our own interpretations of love. They might well already be sharing a true love deep enough to carry them through old age; but this is real art: it is for us to imagine and question and talk about with our friends.

    If we are very much wanting them to be lovers in a more Hollywoodish view, there is room in our imaginations. After their climactic crying scene, the words of the song refer to his clumsily holding her in his arms that night—not that day. It’s ambiguous. Theirs is certainly not a platonic relationship; and, look: she has already effectively lost her teaching position because of rumours about a nonexistent teacher/student affair. Her initial reaction to his profession of love is altogether the way it would be, and in the moment she never intends to crush the deepest happiness he has ever known. So, if you wish, there is room for the two of them to have indeed remained together all that night. The best stories are those that let the reader decide, as this one does.

    I would have reacted as he did. I know that.

    As for loneliness, yearning, separation, and all the rest: we all live in the same world. As much as we feel ecstacy, so we are likely to feel hurt and sorrow; or, as conservative as we may be toward our highs, so we are likely to feel, conservatively, our lows to an equivalent degree. We feel all these things and we express them in tears and kisses and language. The Garden of Words is literally that. If the story involved a hundred times as many words, it would be a romance of words; instead, it is a garden. The title, like so many aspects of this masterpiece, is exquisite and precise.

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