What kind of mood does the rain put you in? For many, a rainy day is a sign of gloom and sadness, akin to tears covering up an otherwise bright day. For some, it casts an image of peace and clarity in its cleansing waters, allowing the world to start fresh. For two such people, it represents the promise of meeting one another.
Makoto Shinkai’s latest work The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa) has the familiar breath and scope of his previous film 5 Centimeters Per Second. This 45 minute love story features a lot of what Shinkai-san is known for: stunning visual imagery, a feeling of nostalgia, the pain of loneliness, and world-weary characters who are wise beyond their years. Someone once named him “the next Miyazaki” in reference to the great director and co-founder of the legendary Studio Ghibli. I tend to disagree with that statement for many reasons, but I love Shinkai-san’s work for different reasons. His works, while often focusing on star-crossed lovers,
The film’s protagonists are Takao Akizuki and Yukari Yukino, played by Miyu Irino and Kana Hanazawa respectively. Although they are complete strangers to one another and there is an age gap between them, they find themselves oddly drawn to one another after their first encounter in a park. From there on, they begin to form a bond with one another and grow closer, meeting only on rainy days. It’s a pretty simple plot that grounds itself in reality, rather than some of the more fantastical settings of Shinkai-san’s previous films such as The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Children who Chase Lost Voices.
The two leads are very interesting contrasts with one another, and a lot of that is thanks to the voices behind them. Miyu Irino has a very mature and masculine voice, which speaks a lot about his character Takao. Despite being only 15 years old, he already knows that he wants to become a shoemaker in the future and takes his goal very seriously. He is so serious about becoming a shoemaker that he cuts class to go to the park and draw up designs for shoes, which is what leads to his encounter with Yukari Yukino. He is very mature and level-headed throughout the film, often so much that I keep forgetting that he’s supposed to be a freshman in high school.
In contrast, the older Ms. Yukino is a mysterious if somewhat playful young woman who tries to put on an image of maturity to those around her. Her well-dressed figure, calm demeanor, and the strangeness of their initial meeting adds to the mystery surrounding her background, and it isn’t later that we find out just why she’s always at the park instead of being at work. While Kana Hanazawa is often typecast into roles as a bubbly and cute high schooler, she settles surprisingly well into her role. Her soft gentle voice suggests a woman who isn’t quite ready to grow up just yet and struggles to maintain that image of someone who is warm and in control of her life.
It’s only natural that praise be given to the visual imagery of Shinkai-san’s works, and this one is no exception. Just like the phrase “Wine gets better with age”, it is stunning to see just how beautiful his animation has gotten. Even back when I first saw 5 Centimeters Per Second, I was blown away at just how gorgeous each frame of animation is. I’m under the firm belief that you could pause any of his films at any moment and land on an image worthy of being printed out and framed on the wall. A lot of that comes from the fact that he will often use real-life photographs for reference in animating his shots. As a result, the cinematography often includes things like depth of field, deep focus, and rule of thirds to add to that photographic quality. All this eye candy has that level of detail that Shinkai-san is known for, and it pays off.
Helping to set the mood throughout the film is the film’s soundtrack, composed by Daisuke Kashiwa. Unfortunately, Tenmon doesn’t return to compose the film score, which actually surprised me at first. Tenmon has worked with Shinkai-san for nearly all of his films, even as early as his short work Me and My Cat. His last collaboration with Shinkai-san was with the latter’s previous film Children Who Chase Lost Voices, so I naturally assumed he would return for this project. Still, Kashiwa does a good job establishing the tone of the film, with his arrangements mostly composed of unaccompanied piano pieces. There is very little flourish in his works, keeping things very rooted in its simplicity, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a story like this. Still, it left me wanting just a little more out of it. Aside from the ost, the ending theme by Motohiro Hata appropriately titled “Rain” is a lovely acoustic pop piece that plays out the end of the film on a good note.
While the plot isn’t too horrible, it isn’t the best either. Perhaps it’s the short duration of the film, preventing the relationship between the two characters to be fully developed. Most of their interactions with one another involve plain conversation in quiet solitude, with the occasional inner monologue giving further glimpses into each character’s thoughts. It’s only at the end does the film break out into the melodramatic love confession, which for some can be a bit sudden if you haven’t been paying attention. This film relies more on what is shown rather than what is said, and even though we do get to hear inside their heads, we’re ultimately left to fill in the gaps in certain spots. It makes it difficult to really connect with our central characters at times.
Ultimately, while I love the animation, the story leaves something to be desired. If you’re a fan of Makoto Shinkai, you’ll love the look and feel of his film. It’s arguably his most beautiful work yet, in all of its subtleties. However, for those looking for a deep and moving portrait of love between a younger man and an older woman, you might be a bit disappointed. I had really hoped they would focus on the highs and lows of that kind of relationship, especially considering the potential scandal it would cause amongst the people close to them. It only manages to skim the surface of the deeper issues, and instead shows us a romance that isn’t quite mature. It’s a film that spends its time in quiet contemplation, so while you admire the beauty in the images presented to you, you can decide whether its enough to like the film or not.