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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen

THE GARDEN OF WORDS | REVIEW & ANALYSIS

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Makoto Shinkai Went Poetic and Crafted an Anime Classic



Director: Makoto Shinkai

Cast/Voices: Miyu Irino, Kana Hanazawa, Fumi Hirano, Gou Maeda

Related Films: Suzume, Weathering with You, Your Name, Children who Chase Lost Voices

Studio: CoMix Wave

Year: 2013

Verdict: 5/6



Contents:



Introducing The Garden of Words


The Garden of Words is the anime equivalent of a poem, not just because it references classical Japanese tanka poetry but because every image is like a framed work of art. Makoto Shinkai certainly outdid himself and quite possibly crafted the highlight of his career.


The dialogue, the voice acting, the drawings, and the score are as mesmerizing as anime comes. Admittedly, the pace is slow, and the run-time is only 45 minutes, but the story tackles huge human emotions, nonetheless.


The situation and drama might feel somewhat staged at times. However, struggling to make any worthwhile personal connections in life is a topic we all can relate to. Perhaps more so in Japanese society than elsewhere, which of course, is mere speculation.



Makoto Shinkai’s Steppingstone into the Big League


Director Makoto Shinkai has been a hot topic in anime circles since the early 2000s. Films like Voices of a Distant Star (2002), 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), and Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) made waves wherever sci-fi anime was popular.


Shinkai’s definitive international breakthrough came in 2016 with Your Name, which made him a household name around the globe overnight.


The Garden of Words came three years before Your Name and was a massive stepping stone. It showed Shinkai taking a huge step towards more accessible topics and stories. Still, it didn’t make much of an impact.


Perhaps it was too much a study of the human psyche for the masses to eat up. Perhaps prioritizing depth before sci-fi and popcorn entertainment was a too sudden change for both Shinkai fans and new viewers to absorb. Hopefully, the success of Your Name will bring more eyes to its predecessor.



Words Fail to Describe Shinkai’s Garden


The Garden of Words is a wonder to behold. The mix of hand-drawn animation with CGI pushed the envelope when it came to the visual standards in anime filmmaking. Shinkai’s team arguably made some of the most breathtaking anime sequences ever.


The Garden of Words’ animation was incredibly detailed and realistic, which made the characters and environments feel very real. From the opening scenes, the images grab a hold and keep you peeled to the screen till the end credits roll.


Light and color were effectively used to underline different emotions and moods. Furthermore, the camera angles and movements created a sense of intimacy and connection between the characters and the audience.


The soundtrack by Daisuke Kashiwa also added to the subtle yet effective building of the story and atmosphere. The music was a mix of ambient sounds, piano melodies, and gentle vocals. The melancholic theme song «Rain» by Motohiro Hata complemented Kashiwa’s score perfectly and highlighted the character’s emotions like a charm.



Fleeting Beauty | The Story of The Garden of Words


The story had an elegant touch of minimalism. It began with a chance encounter between two strangers sitting on a park bench on a rainy day. He was a fifteen-year-old loner whose only interest was to become a shoemaker. She was a 27-year-old ostracized teacher who was innocently blamed for having relations with a teenage boy in her class.


They were both at odds with society, with no certain futures in sight. Their common insecurity ignited a spark of familiarity, which led them to connect. Every time it rained, they cut class and work to sit next to each other on the same park bench. As faith would have it, two lost souls found comfort where they least expected.


Before long, however, what started as an innocent connection developed into deeper feelings. The teacher’s inclusive nature and pure attention were mistaken for affection, which led to the pouring out of the young boy’s heart.


The dawning realization that their relationship could not be turned into emotional torment for them both. After that, the relationship seemed to wither, but losing true connection might prove an even harder blow to their aching souls…



The Garden of Words Analysis


The Garden of Words dove headfirst into timeless themes like self-discovery, coming-of-age, personal growth, and forbidden love. It might sound like something you’ve seen a hundred times before, but on the contrary, it is anything but.


The movie title, «The Garden of Words», refers to the idea that words can shape our lives and relationships. Moreover, words can sow seeds or be cultivated, much like the planting and tending of a garden.


The rain in The Garden of Words represents different things for different characters, from sadness and despair to hope and renewal. The movie also highlighted the importance of communication and emotional honesty in relationships.


Telling such an emotional story with breathtaking visuals to boot makes for a powerful combo, indeed. The imagery underlines the character’s mental state perfectly, giving the film a tone reminiscent of many Japanese, non-anime melodramas.


The atmosphere is, of course, somewhat synthetic, but the emotional depth is arguably akin to that of films like Hana and Alice (2004), Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016), or Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister.


The story of two outcasts seeking comfort in each other, despite being of different generations, appears to carefully critique Japan's strict social structures and hierarchies. They both hid their emotions inside, even though their connection was plain to see. They stay in line, like indoctrinated servants, but to us, the spectators, their feelings are clear.


In a highly capitalist society, where compliant workers are pivotal cogs in the machinery, it doesn’t seem unlikely that something gets lost along the way. Perhaps human emotion is so subdued to the benefit of productivity that entire generations have become emotionally crippled.


Another alternative is that today's filmmakers have perfected the art of expressing emotions on screen. Then, the play between the characters is just another fine-tuned part of the film industry, which is to say, a cultural expression that has been honed over decades or even centuries.


If the latter is the case, then the apparent depth of emotions is nothing more than the Japanese machine’s perfecting of another commodity. Excuse me for this sudden burst of cynicism. Another way to interpret the film is that it underlines the importance of seemingly trivial actions and dialogues.


Considering the breakneck pace in many Japanese workplaces, savoring even the tiniest of real human connections seems an apt message indeed. As such, The Garden of Words can be seen as a story about the power of human connections and the importance of emotional honesty.



Similarities and Parallels to The Garden of Words


The Garden of Words resembles Shinkai’s other films to some extent, like Your Name and 5 Centimeters per Second. These three animes explore similar themes of love and self-discovery. However, The Garden of Words stands out due to its heightened focus on personal connections and unique visual and storytelling style.


The Garden of Words was adapted into a manga by Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi, which was serialized in Monthly Afternoon from April to August 2013. The manga adaptation expands on some of the movie's themes and adds new scenes and perspectives to the story.


The main difference between the movie and the manga was that the latter included additional scenes and perspectives that added depth to the characters. The manga also expanded on some of the movie's themes, such as societal expectations and the pressure to conform.


Due to the stunning visuals in The Garden of Words anime, some fans argue that the movie was a more effective medium for this story.


A novelization of The Garden of Words by Midori Motohashi was also released in 2013. The novelization further explored the characters' emotions and inner thoughts, adding more detail to the story.



Final Verdict for The Garden of Words


The Garden of Words is a wonderful little film that was a huge stepping stone for Makoto Shinkai. Fans of his earlier films might have struggled with the emphasis on human emotions as opposed to grandiose sci-fi. But then again, Shinkai always explored character depth and personal stories in his films.


In The Garden of Words, emotions are big, and so is the art. This tale is as fleeting as a poem uttered in a summer breeze. One moment it’s there; the next, it’s gone. All that is left is the emotional impact on anyone who took the poem to heart.




Resources


AnimeNewsNetwork: Interview: Makoto Shinkai Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies: Will Shinkai Makoto be the next Miyazaki? Fandom: The Garden of Words MidnightEye: The Garden of Words


It goes without saying that Blu-ray is the superior medium for this film. There are good versions on DVD and streaming services, but none can compare with the crisp image you get in real HD. Since this is one of the most beautiful anime films we have seen in modern times, we recommend watching it how it was intended.


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