Review: The Garden of Words

Makoto Shinkai’s works have always been mesmeric in aesthetic and thematic design. While the famed director has covered the gamut in terms of narrative motif, his latest film, The Garden of Words, feels more akin to his real-world drama Five Centimeters Per Second than the most recent, more fantastical piece The Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Because Garden tackles this real-life subject matter, viewers are given an incredibly relatable, personable motion picture that feels painfully intimate and touchingly sentimental. But in the process of striking these resonate chords, does The Garden of Words lose focus?

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Content

Shinkai’s latest piece is the story of Takao Akizuki, a 15 year old student living with his borderline alcoholic mother and older brother in small urban apartment. Takao is unlike other boys his age, though, in that he’s not only significantly more mature than them, but aspires to be a cobbler. Takao’s hopes of shoe-making go all the way back to childhood when he was enraptured with a pair of shoes he gifted to his mother. Unfortunately for Takao, his friends and family are hardly supportive of his passion, thinking little will come of it and downplaying his abilities at every turn. Because of this, our leading man works doubly hard to turn his dreams into a reality. How this yearning manifests itself is in the form of Takao cutting class on rainy days to sketch shoe concepts in a park located within city limits. It’s in a small gazebo one day that Takao meets the film’s female mainstay, Yukari Yukino, a well-dressed young woman, though noticeably older than Takao, drinking beer in the early morning rain.

At first, the two don’t share much of an exchange, however as they begin to frequent the garden more and more, they run into each other often and eventually cultivate a friendship. The duo continues to meet each morning in the park and slowly open up to one another about their ambitions and personal struggles. In their talks, Yukari discloses her interest in Takao’s shoemaking, which prompts his decision to make a pair of shoes in her size. As he measures her foot during one encounter, Yukari expresses that she needs to learn how to walk on her own, as if to seemingly indicate some kind of internal pain that she needs resolved. It’s in the subtlety of both characters wishing to help each other that we begin to see the protagonists really come to life, giving viewers an on-screen relationship that feels knelling, beautiful and poignant. Over time, this a delicate forging of characters comes across as powerful and important. Ultimately, our young Takao falls in love with Yukari, but only after figuring out the source of her depression, and who she really is.

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Although Garden of Words‘ story and cast are small, they’re so well-written that other films of its kind simply pale in comparison. There is a certain degree of emotional plaintiveness that envelops the entirety of the film. Because of this, audiences are shown two characters that feel desperate, lonesome and suffering beyond words. The cast’s psychological pain and initial inability to conquer certain demons is heart-breaking at times, and made all the more potent due to Makoto’s writing, which is intricately-crafted and capable of eliciting empathy with an amazing sense of ease. Although the film only clocks in at 46 minutes, Makoto is able to connect viewers to his characters more effectively than what most writers can do in a two-hour feature length film. They have charm, depth and personality beyond words. Though outside of Takao and Yukari, there’s actually a third character to consider: water. It’s clear that Shinkai wants audiences to understand the purpose of nature in his film, and more specifically the symbolism of water and the thematic role it plays in the narrative. This notion is emphasized by the movie’s constant rainy backdrop. So not only do the drizzles act as a vehicle to drive our main characters to one another, but in Garden of Words, water is analogous with starting anew; creating life by washing away that which no longer has a place.

It’s in this hidden meaning that much of Garden‘s message and entertainment will be derived. But because of how hidden it can be, some viewers may miss the point of its story entirely. What they’ll be left with then is a by-the-books love story that can feel cliche or even trite on occasion. In essence, the film assumes its audience is smart and will take away the philosophical complexities of its tale without a hiccup. But if we know anything about movie-goers, it’s that they sometimes don’t recognize the subtext; themes get lost amidst more obvious matters and some nuances fall short of standing out enough to make an impact. Thus, if Garden of Words ever falters, it’s here as sometimes the film can merely lose focus by trying to hit all of those quiet existential notes.

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Visuals

We’ll make the statement now, and firmly stand by it: Garden of Words may be the single most beautiful animated film ever created. Yes, we said, “ever created.” Big words, but also true words. Colors come to live on-screen, popping in ways you’ve never even known possible. The lush greenery is astounding too, taking on a role of its own by dominating scenes with gorgeous emerald hues; moreover, the water is the best we’ve seen in hand-drawn animation. You can almost feel the film’s environment because of how life-like and vibrant it is. The characters’ motions are extremely elegant to boot — flowing and moving in natural ways, with the line work that is extremely crisp. The film also makes heavy use of wide-angle, panoramic shots that are heart-stopping. To say that Garden of Words is a visual feast for the eyes would be a gross understatement. The art here is seriously something to write home about — top-notch work that is inspiring in all ways. Even if the subject matter and plot aren’t interesting to you, you should still watch the film just to see what true beauty looks like in animated form.

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Audio

Like its aesthetics, Garden of Words‘ audio presentation is a cut above the rest. We’re talking Grade-A, top-shelf stuff here, with a score that plays on viewers’ emotions to an almost unfair level. It can be sweeping but also melodic, understanding how to accentuate the emotionality of a scene by playing on viewers’ heart strings like a mad violinist. Makoto’s soundtracks are always impressive, bolstering compositions that feel transcendent of the human condition, capable of conjuring up feelings of deep sadness, joy and excitement all at once — and Garden of Words is no different in that respect. But the tunes aren’t the only brilliant pieces of audio on display; the dub cast delivers a hands down, spot-on, fully understood performance. Both Patrick Poole and Maggie Flecknoe do wonderful jobs at portraying Takao and Yukari. Flecknoe is especially strong, and shows her range at various points in the film, most notably the ending scene where she gives one of the most touching performances of any dub anime. In fact, it was so magical and heart-warming that tears covered our faces by the time it was all said and done. Naturally, folks looking for solid Japanese voice-overs will be right at home as well, as the actors are truly excellent in tone and pitch. Both the casts, however, do fantastic jobs at never coming across as melodramatic or full of angst, marking this as an anime that thankfully dodges the pitfalls of so many others starring teen protagonists.

Extras

To round out the package, Garden of Words comes loaded with extras. Japanese commentary, English commentary, interviews, storyboards, production stills, the original Japanese trailer and a piece that chronicles the works of Makoto Shinkai are all ripe for the picking. There’s easily over an hour in special features, further cementing this release as a must-own for any anime fan.

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Closing Comments:

The truth of the matter is simple: The Garden of Words is an important film for anime. It transcends its genre and we dare say its entire medium. It’s powerful, moving and full of meaning and emotion. This is a story about love, loss and hope, and one that tackles such topics with eloquence and poignancy. Truly, Makoto Shinkai has another winner on his hands, and has proven to audiences once again that he is on par with the industry’s best and most beloved.
score4.5
Distributor: Sentai Filmworks