I would have normally titled this Only Happy When It Rains but you can’t understand the deep dark journey we went on for a bit after this movie. I needed to use the title to provide a warning for those who might otherwise inadvertently follow in our footsteps after reading this post. Just know that the Internet is rich with veins of content for those who wish to mix their love of Japanese cartoons and tootsies. Unless that is your preference merely know that it exists and then move on.
As I was writing the Your Name review I realized that The Garden of Words was still a major oversight the filmography of Makoto Shinkai. It is in an interesting position in his repertoire. It is shorter than his full-length films but longer than his short works. It is distinctly longer than his Voices of a Distant Star debut short film but also far shorter than 5 Centimeters Per Second which is his shortest full-length film. It does seem to be in an unusual position between short and full-length film. I discovered that Shinkai did not originally plan to have this play in theaters. It was originally just supposed to be distributed on the Internet but then got upgraded to run in theaters. That explains its more unusual 46 minutes run time.
That made me wonder if The Garden of Words would feel more like a short that got fluffed up to its current run time, a theatrical piece that was cut to 46 minutes, or would it be written to fit that time frame.
I always enjoy Makoto Shinkai’s stories, so when Al brought to my attention that we still hadn’t watched The Garden of Words I was shocked by the oversight. I was excited to return to Mr. Shinkai’s short stories with a loving attention to detail.
In the middle of a gazebo in a park in Tokyo, a high school student and a working woman meet as they take shelter from the rain. While their initial conversation is a bit awkward they eventually connect and their meeting ends with the woman reciting a poem. From then on whenever it rains they meet and begin to look forward to their rendezvous during the precipitation. This is a tale of two lonely souls learning to walk again in the rain.
As I’ve come to expect from Makoto Shinkai, this movie was a series of beautifully put together sequences. There was a big focus on the beauty of rain, the rainy season in Japan, and the calming effect of idling during a rainy day. (As someone who hates the rainy, it took me a couple of beats to sink into the mindsets of the characters.)
There wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue in this film, instead it relied on images to do the talking. This is particularly well done in showing Akizuki and Yukino becoming more comfortable together; sitting closer and closer, turning towards each other more, then eventually they began talking and laughing.
Their connection was an interesting one which I puzzled over at first. Yukino was older than Akizuki and her life was more cryptic in what we saw. There was a bit of manipulation on her part which was unfair, however it was easy to understand why she did it. As to what she saw in Akizuki, that was clear as day, someone who had a big dream and a destination. These were things she either felt she had lost or never had in the first place.
The standout story moment in my eyes was the sequence of Akizuki being honest then being batted away by Yukino essentially treating him like a child. The reactions stemming from that moment are beautifully done and resolved in a perfectly romantic moment. And of course, it involves the rain.
Much like Kate, I’m hardly a fan of the rain. I mostly associate it with wet shoes and cold feet. But the rain can also bring on a very contemplative period where you sit and stare out the window alone with your thoughts. It is that essence that The Garden of Words tries to capture. When Akizuki and Yukino first meet it is very clear that they are both isolated in their own little dimensions of contemplation as they both feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. As the repeatedly meet under the gazebo they slowly come to realize the unique circumstances of their situation. Their little oasis from the rain in the park makes it that they are isolated in their own little world but they are isolated together. This gives them a rare chance to share their burdens in a way they would not be allowed to elsewhere. In fact, Yukino comments that when she comes to the park when it is not raining it is a very different place. It is as if the rain casts a spell that transforms the gazebo into a magical island but is disappears as soon as the showers dissipate.
The other main theme is the idea of learning to walk. This makes Akizuki’s passion for shoe making a little more understandable even if it still comes off like a passion for Jai Alai or Morris dancing. It is not that people don’t have an interest in such things. Dreaming of becoming a cordwainer is nowhere as common as say working to be a musician or a soccer star. (I’m sorry Sergio Rossi. It’s true. )
It is clear that Akizuki’s life has stalled out. While she is understandably not readily forthcoming on why she is in a pit of gloom it is even apparent to a teenager like Akizuki even if she does not spell it out. At the same time, Akizuki is clearly an awkward young man who has not really found himself. As Kate mentioned the difference is that while Akizuki does not fully have a plan he has a goal. Whatever passion or dreams Akizuki had are now as muted as her taste buds. Both of them bond over a lethargic melancholy when it rains but only one of them moves during the bright days.
So feet. This movie was obsessed with our heroine’s feet. Now granted Akizuki was an aspiring shoemaker, which was the first I’ve seen in anime I think, but the movie didn’t focus on everyone’s feet, just Yukino’s. There was enough focus on them to make note and to find it just a bit weird.
There was even a scene that portrays such physical hesitancy in regards to her feet that added a lot of intimacy which wouldn’t have been present otherwise.
The foot measuring scene reminded me of the part in Pulp Fiction where they are talking about why Marsellus Wallace defenestrated Antoine. The whole scene talks about how Marsellus treated Antoine giving his wife a foot message as serious as a conventional act of infidelity. The sensual nature of Akizuki measuring Yukino’s feet is clearly an indicator of a level of intimacy and inhibition at least equal to a passionate kiss if not more. As Vincent in Pulp Fiction says it is something that can be played off as innocuous despite the fact that it is clearly not the case in the hearts of everyone involved.
There are two main criticisms of the movie that I have seen. The first is the fact that The Garden of Words uses a different shading than what his movies usually use. It does oddly remind me a little more of the sort of cell shading you see in video game cut scenes but that it is more of a minor shift than a complete sea change. The movie is up to Makoto Shinkai’s normal gorgeous visual excellence. The backgrounds are still luscious, the characters are still fluid and expressive, and direction is subtle and powerful. While the movie does have a different look than his normal movies it still looks like what you expect from his work. Also, it suits the mood of the movie so I can’t really fault it.
The second is what I hinted it at the beginning. I have seen that people dislike the movie it usually because they felt the film just ends. Maybe it is just because I have grown accustomed to Makoto Shinkai’s style but I accept that he is not really concerned about long and detailed sections of falling action. He introduces a conflict, develops the situation, and then has a suitable climax. It asks a question and then answers it. I realize there is an audience that wants a more definitive “they live happily ever after” or “they find a new love after a losing another” but Makoto Shinkai has never been interested in that. He cares more for the highs and lows of emotion than the emotional paperwork and reconciliation that comes afterward. While understandably that is not everyone’s cup of tea there is value for that sort of economical storytelling.
In retrospect, I regret passing over The Garden of Words when it was released. It is clear after Children Who Chase Lost Voices Makoto Shinkai decided to recenter himself and go back to the more familiar territory. If seems as if he might have to relearn how to walk but this film helped him get back on his feet. That let him get back on the path towards Your Name so that is a very good thing.
I agree with Al, The Garden of Words felt like Makoto Shinkai refocusing himself. The Garden of Words was him doing what he does best: tell a thoughtful, sometimes painful, love story with exquisite attention to the human heart. I love how large a story he can convey in short amounts of time and with few words.
So using few words: I loved it.