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  • Robin Syversen

THE GARDEN OF WORDS (2013)

Updated: May 11

Modern anime never looked better or reached deeper!


Director: Makoto Shinkai

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

Related films: 5 Centimeters per Second, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Your Name

Verdict: 4.5/6


Introduction

Garden of Words is the anime equivalent of a poem - not just because the story revolves around Japanese tanka poetry - but because every image painted is like a framed work of art. The dialogue, the voice acting, the drawings and the score are as mesmerizing as anime comes.


The pace is slow and the run-time short (45 minutes), but the story tackles huge human emotions nonetheless. The situation and drama might feel somewhat staged at times. However, the topic of struggling to make any kind of worthwhile personal connections in life, is something we all can relate to. Perhaps more so in Japanese society than elsewhere, which is mere speculation of course.



Background

Director Makoto Shinkai has been a hot topic in anime circles since the early 2000’s. 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. His definitive international breakthrough came in 2016 with Your Name, which made him a household name around the globe overnight.


Three years prior came The Garden of Words and served as a steppingstone. It showed Shinkai taking a huge step towards more accessible topics and story. 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 it up. Maybe the idea of putting 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.


The Garden of Words is a wonder to behold. The mix of hand-drawn animation with CGI pushed the envelope when it came to visual standards for anime filmmaking. At the time, Shinkai’s team presented what was arguably some of the most breathtaking anime visuals to ever be made. From the opening scenes it was virtually impossible to turn your gaze away from the screen until the end credits rolled.



Plot

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


They are both at odds with society, with no certain futures in sight. Their common insecurity ignites a spark of familiarity which leads them to connect. Every time it rains 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 some comfort where they least expected.


Before long however, what started as an innocent connection develop into deeper feelings. The teacher’s including nature and pure attention is mistaken for affection, which leads to the pouring out of the young boy’s heart. The dawning realization of a relationship that cannot be leads to emotional torment for them both. At first their relation seems to wither, but the loss of true connection might be even harder on their aching souls…



Between the lines

Surrounding such an emotional story with breathtaking visuals makes for a powerful combo indeed. The imagery underlines the character’s mental state perfectly, which gives the film a tone comparable to 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) or Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016).


The story of two outcasts seeking comfort in each other, despite being of different generations and social strata, could possibly be analyzed in relation to the strict social structures and hierarchies in Japan. 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. Maybe human emotion is subdued to the benefit of productivity.


Or maybe the effective expressing of emotions is just another fine-tuned part of Japanese filmmaking, which is to say a cultural expression being 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.



Conclusion

The Garden of Words is a wonderful little film and a testament to Makoto Shinkai’s abilities. The emotions are big, and so is the art. Fans of his earlier films might struggle when the sensitive side of things take precedence over sci-fi, but then again, Shinkai always emphasized depth and personal stories in his films. 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.


It goes without saying that Blu-ray is the superior medium for this film. There are good versions to be found on both DVD and streaming services, but none of these 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 warmly recommend to see it the way it was intended.

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JCA - Robin Syversen
M.Phil: Japanese Culture Studies
Thesis: Rearticulating Japanese Cinematic Style
Guest Lecturer: Japanese film history (UiO)
Film blogger: Z Film Quarterly Znett.com
Contact: jcapostbox@gmail.com
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