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Review: The Garden of Words

Kotonoha-no-Niwa

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