Garden of Words [言の葉の庭 Kotonoha no Niwa] (2013)
Starring Miyu Irino, Kana Hanazawa, Fumi Hirano, Takeshi Maeda, Yuka Terasaki, Takanori Hoshino, Suguru Inoue, Megumi Han, Mikako Komatsu, Yuki Hayashi
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
After being disappointed by Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I was hopeful that Shinkai would return to the style he has been so good at before. With Garden of Words he did exactly that, so I am thankful, but he went back to a 5CM Per Second style of realistic romance. I really do wish he would go back to the intriguing science fiction premises that wound through his earlier films. Without that speculative side, Garden of Words becomes just another bittersweet tale of impossible love, which is what all of his films center around. This isn’t really a bad thing; it’s just that I prefer to have something beyond a simple romance story.
The film centers around a high school boy who likes the rain, and ditches class every time it rains. He hangs out in a park with a covered bench and enjoys the weather with a sketchbook in hand. His career goal is to become a women’s shoe designer. Now that may be odd, but at least he’s got dreams, right? One day he encounters an older woman also ditching work who seems to like the combination of beer and chocolate. They continue meeting every time it rains, and gradually grow closer to each other.
It plays out in a distinctly Japanese manner. The film is very reserved and slow in its buildup, and I can easily see a lot of western viewers calling it boring. It isn’t until the second half that we start finding out more about the mysterious woman, and her reasons for liking beer and chocolate. But even then, we’re left with more questions than answers. And this is really my only major gripe with the film. Even by the end, I didn’t really feel like I knew much about her, and rather than helping understand anything, her past just made her more confusing. I suppose I may have just missed some subtle cue that would have made sense out of it all, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out in a film like this. But I can only call it like I see it, as somewhat incomplete.
You might wonder just how I made it through the film at all, and while I must admit to some boredom through the first half, I didn’t mind it all that much. Blame it on my overexposure to anime enuring me to that Japanese flavor of storytelling. But what may be more at work was the animation. Comix Wave has proven itself to be one of the best animation studios out there. I still have my issues with the use of CG in these films, and Ghibli certainly has the edge on primary animation, but when it comes to background art no one can do it better than Makoto Shinkai. Those backgrounds are every bit as luscious and vibrant as ever, and I could easily sit in awe of them for an hour or more.
I hate to say that the background art is the sole point of the film, but it is certainly the star of the show. What’s more, Shinkai knows how to not only make it look gorgeous, but to also put it front and center where it can do the most good for the film. And while the romance angle isn’t exactly my cup of tea, those who are romance fans may find a lot more to like here than I did.