Makoto Shinkai is still a relatively newcomer to the anime scene, but over the last ten years, he’s proven himself to sometimes be heralded as the “next Miyazaki”. While I think it’s a bit early for such a comparison, I can see where those people are coming from. In the same way that Hayao Miyazaki can create these luxuriously detailed and fantastical worlds for us to take in and envelop us, Shinkai can do the same with his character driven pieces. His 2011 release Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is certainly his most fantasy-infused work, but it’s still about his core premise in all of his movies: characters. That’s precisely what Garden of Words brings us, a love story that explores some taboo subject matter and two people that really struggle with their lot in life.
Takao Akizuki is a student with laughable aspirations to become a professional shoe maker; working hard to make his dream a reality. On a whim during a rainy morning, he decides to skip a class and head to the park to work on shoe designs in peace. He joins Yukari Yukino who’s already made herself comfortable with chocolate and beer. Naturally Takao is hesitant and curious to her presence and actions, but says nothing. As the sun returns from being hidden by the clouds, Yukari leaves Takao, but not before offering him a tanka (a poem) which reads “even if rain doesn’t fall and the thunder doesn’t echo, and the sky isn’t cloudy, would you stay here?” Naturally that bewilders and intrigues Takao. This trend of meeting on rainy days continues until Yukari propositions a pair of shoes from Takao which, while he’s measuring her dimensions, offers some insight into her as a person. She’s clearly more deep and troubled than her beer and chocolate diet let known.
So as not to ruin the true poignancy of this 46 minute tale, Takao and Yukari’s lives intertwine more and more and as additional details emerge about Yukari’s life, Takao is faced with a variety of decisions and life choices to make. All leading to an emotional scene outside Yukari’s apartment with a sweeping track provided Daisuke Kashiwa, who does a stellar job throughout the short film. This is not uncommon fare for Shinkai, despite his last few big releases being hour-long films, Garden of Words tells a glorious, if not slightly clichéd, tale in a meager near-fifty minute timeframe. Reminiscent of his earlier pieces Voices of a Distant Star or 5 Centimeters per Second, this is all on the characters and their growth. Not overarching fantasy, no real danger; simply characters interacting within a realistic world.
As previously mentioned, Daisuke Kashiwa does do the composition for Garden of Words. So those familiar with Shinkai’s work might be bummed to not hear Tenmons’ typical strings and piano pieces fluttering throughout. Kashiwa encapsulates every scene he’s featured with familiar sound that won’t sour you on his inclusion. Particularly the climactic scene will be a featured track, but subtle, more minor moments are sprinkled with a calming, touching score. Perhaps Tenmon may return in future Shinkai films, but if not, I hope Kashiwa can be a suitable replacement, even for the more hardcore Tenmon fans.
Enough about the terrific music, does this include that renowned Shinkai artwork? Yes, yes it does! Nearly every single film cel of Garden of Words is gorgeously crafted. Shinkai’s meticulous attention to detail for such minor things is ridiculous…in a good way! The big focus for this film however, is the raindrops and rain fall. Tons of shots feature rain cascading and hitting puddles and ground and splashing and seemingly reacting realistically. It’s amazing in stills, but even more so in ‘motion’. Shinkai and team created a lovely backdrop and used exuberant detail to highlight Takao and Yukaris’ journey.
In addition to the splendid music, the voice work is commendable too. Miyu Irino (Haku Spirited Away, Sora Kingdom Heart JP) and Kana Hanazawa (Ryoko Zegapain, Kanade Angel Beats) voice Takao and Yukari perfectly. Subtle delivery when needed, vocal extremes during the climax. They both hit all the right notes when required, and help bring the couple to life. The rest of the minor cast is handled well, but the focus is clearly on Takao and Yuakri, and they nailed it!
Garden of Words is, once again, a love story that’s not doing anything new, but never intended to do so. It’s simply a short, beautiful look at two people who meet, grow, learn, and love. It’s a throwback to Shinkais’ earlier works, and I highly recommend it. Maybe you can take points off if you hate shorter length films, or if the perhaps unrealistic reactions and premise bug you, but they’re easily dismissible and do little to affect the closing feelings and moments of this otherwise amazing creation. Shinkai remains my favorite Japanese animation director, and I eagerly anticipate whatever else he has planned for the future.
Sentai Filmworks has license to release Garden of Words in the future for the US, so be sure to check back as the announcement is surely expected soon.