The Garden of Words is Makoto Shinkai’s latest film, returning to his favorite subject of star-crossed romances being jerked around by fate. I think it’s the emptiest of Shinkai’s films, but this one does seem to be more about the craftsmanship than the content.
The film starts out with a chance encounter between Takao, a high school student, and Yukari, who appears to be just another office lady. They have a habit of skipping school/work on rainy days, choosing to sit under a gazebo in the middle of a park. Takao wants to be a shoe designer, but is lacking the proper measurements he needs to realize his first design. Yukari seems to be running away from something, choosing to drink beer and eat chocolate instead of going to work. They strike up a conversation and friendship, but meet only when it rains.
That right there pretty much sums up Shinkai’s world view – at least as far as this film is concerned. Takao and Yukari literally have no agency. Their friendship is pretty much dictated by the weather. I think it’s a bit frustrating that Shinkai is still telling these stories about barriers, distance, and longing. I realize it’s due to the Japanese culture, where people are less open about their feelings. But it still feels a bit forced, even a bit trite.
Shinkai structures the plot so that it weaves in and out of both Takao’s and Yukari’s lives. It’s one way of showing how much they need each other, in that their lives are lonely and pretty uneventful otherwise. At times it almost seems like they go into a state of suspended animation when they’re not together. Takao goes through the motions of school and part-time jobs, while Yukari apparently just exists as a Christmas cake.
The resolution to the story also fell short, as I didn’t feel the impact it was meant to have. The most genuine moment comes when Takao and Yukari go to dry off at Yukari’s place. After that, I thought the story reached the conclusion that I wanted, the one it should have reached. And while the dialogue in the closing moments is well-written to the point of being poetic, I felt too disconnected through the rest of the movie to really care about it. Imagine the story of Stanley and Livingstone reduced to two facts: Stanley found Livingstone in Africa, and said “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It’s a grand conclusion to a story you can’t fully appreciate, thus diminishing the effect.
Despite all this, I really admire this film for its craftsmanship. Shinkai approaches animation with the eye of a photographer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a background in photography. What makes his style unique is his use of photographic composition and lighting. He uses positioning, leading lines, and framing to create visual drama and tension. He lights his characters the same way a photographer might, preferring backlights and rim lights, sometimes even simulating the effect of gels. His frames are almost always tight, simulating a 100mm-200mm focal length. He’s one of the only animators I know who goes for an authentic macro look for some shots.
All of these techniques create a sense of intimacy. Shinkai will use depth of field and bokeh effects to highlight his characters or other important visual elements. The film is as much a work of portraiture as it is a narrative. It paints a portrait of two people, but also of a city and of summer. Even without the dramatic pull of his other works, The Garden of Words can be striking thanks to its imagery. Like a street photographer, Shinkai can transform the ordinary into poetry just through his ability to capture an image.