iSugio

The Garden of Words – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Takao, who is training to become a shoemaker, skipped school and is sketching shoes in a Japanese-style garden. He meets a mysterious woman who is older than him. Then, without arranging the times, the two start to see each other again and again, but only on rainy days. They deepen their relationship and open up to each other. But the end of the rainy season soon approaches. The summer months go by without them meeting in the garden. One afternoon when Takao is at school, he is walking with two of his friends. This is when Takao realizes that Yukino is actually a teacher at his high-school as she walks by.

After releasing the visually impressive but somewhat overly ambitious Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011), it would appear that director Makoto Shinkai had ultimately reached a creative peak in his career. With the heavily overstated labeling as the “next Miyazaki” by many critics, it was a label that even Shinkai believed was unwarranted, but it was unexpectedly reinforced with the release of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, a film that was quite similar to many past, Ghibli-affiliated works, primarily in terms of its narrative scope and animation style. It is not surprising then to see Shinkai return to an earlier, more simplistic approach with The Garden of Words, a film that harkens back to the qualities found in some of the director’s most foundational past works.

Reflecting on a personal note, Shinkai is one of the few animation directors who I have fortunately been able to follow closely since their emergence. From his relatively humble beginnings working within the medium of video games, I have seen him grow artistically through each subsequent film of his, expanding his craftsmanship as an individual with the ability to effectively translate the various facets of the human condition to the realm of animation, in turn bringing impassioned explorations on the aspects of separation, friendship, death, and affection. The Garden of Words is a film that returns to two facets that Shinkai is quite familiar with – separation and affection – and coincides it with a look into the search for finding one’s place within a modern era.

Combining elements expressed in Voices of a Distant Star (2002) and 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), it is a film that is definitely more intimate than his previous effort, focusing intently on the relationship between two individuals as they traverse lifeways and discover facets about themselves through interacting with one another. It is an approach that we have seen Shinkai explore before, and his astute ability in weaving the fates of individuals together in a believable and earnest fashion is certainly his strong suit, as shown here once again. And while one can point to Children Who Chase Lost Voices as a film that found Shinkai exploring new and creative directions from both the perspective of a writer and animator, here we see him returning to material he simply knows how to convey best. Small, introspective examinations of individuals are where Shinkai’s adeptness truly shines, easing us into worlds in which the interconnectedness of the individuals who inhabit those worlds are amplified, as viewers get to witness the strong bonds that formulate amongst the characters within his films. The Garden of Words follows this credo rather closely, exploring the innermost thoughts of film’s two main characters Takao and Yukari with an almost poetic flair.

Similar to Voices of a Distant Star, viewing The Garden of Words is akin to an experience in which viewers will probably want more from considering the quality of the material shown, but unfortunately won’t receive too much more given the film’s running time remaining roughly under an hour in length. This approach can be viewed as both a negative and positive aspect of the film overall – especially in regards to individual viewers – lending the film two very different interpretations. For one, the film presents enough material within its short running time that could easily produce a film much longer than it currently is, and although that may be true to a certain extent, the film’s shortness also lends to the narrative’s portrayal of fleeting relationships and a sense for longing. Both seem adequate representations of the narrative structure itself, mainly because we have seen Shinkai do this before. Similar to 5 Centimeters Per Second, the film also incorporates the importance of time as a crucial element in showcasing the growth of the film’s characters and their relationship to one another. Working almost as a reflective piece on the notion of seasons and its influence in the lives of individuals, we see the characters of Takao and Yukari as people mindful of the state of nature and how it can transform people, most certainly that of their own emotional entanglement.

But considering the technical qualities of the film, The Garden of Words is yet another fine example of Shinkai’s prowess as a visual director. He and CoMix Wave have done an impressive job here in constructing absolutely fantastic animated sequences within the film that are aesthetically pleasing as they are complementary to the material showcased. If anything, the animation quality of the film continues the tradition of Shinkai and his staff in bringing about the painstaking detail that has become a distinct feature of each of his films. The realistic look of the film is one of its strongest highlights, with many of its scenes being meticulous as possible in garnering the emotional depth and state of its characters through its animation. Whether this is seen in the lushly green, rain-filled park that stands amidst a vast metropolitan landscape, to the soft hued interior of the Takao’s classroom, The Garden of Words is quite simply one of the best looking films to be released in the last several years, a true testament of Shinkai’s willingness to focus heavily on the visual qualities of his films.

With the combination of sufficient writing and animation, The Garden of Words remains an engrossing, meditative piece that is something that many fans of Shinkai’s earlier works will take pleasure in watching. While it does not have the grandiose nature as seen in his previous film, its simplistic yet telling narrative is an approach that really works out for the better concerning Shinkai’s ability as a director. While some viewers will certainly want more from the film, The Garden of Words works more like an extended, short film that finds Shinkai at his most comfortable in exploring the trials and tribulations between two individuals. If this is the type of material that we can expect more from him in the future, one can see that Shinkai may even surpass some of his earlier films in terms of successfully combining strong writing with that of superb animation, with The Garden of Words further showcasing that he can indeed do just that.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • Evening Breeze

    A heart warming film. Visual masterpiece. Amazing animation. Decent storyline.