Every so often, I receive a jarring reminder that time is passing by around me. It feels as though just yesterday I was attending a screening for, what was then Makoto Shinkai's newest film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Well, I guess it's time to face the facts: that was nearly two years ago. To be completely honest, the fact that Makoto Shinkai had not only been working on, but had completed another film was a real shock to me. After learning this, I immediately made my way to YouTube to find a trailer for this newest film. And I watched the trailer. And my jaw dropped.
By now, the name Makoto Shinkai is synonymous with production values that are absolutely through the roof. I think we may have reached a point where the aesthetic quality of his work is no longer even rivaled by Studio Ghibli. But I was still completely blown away by what I saw. I was convinced that what I was looking at was a trailer for one of the most beautiful animations I had ever seen. I knew instantly that Garden of Words was a film that I had to get my hands on. Now that I've gotten my hands on it, and had the chance to watch it, I have a lot to say about it.
To start with, I'd like to explain that I was cautiously optimistic of Garden of Words after watching the trailer. I have all of the respect in the world for Makoto Shinkai as a director and an animator, I've never been particularly impressed by his forays into the realms of romance and drama, and that's clearly what Garden looked to be. This is not to say that films such as 5 Centimeters Per Second are bad -- rather, I simply acknowledge that I am not, even remotely, a part of the targeted demographic for such films. So when what I had seen of Garden of Words strongly hinted at it being another romantic drama, this made me, admittedly, somewhat apprehensive. However, I now happily -- if somewhat confusedly -- admit that my fears were completely unwarranted. While it's true that Garden of Words is a romance-drama, there's something special about this one. Somehow, it was touching enough, and moving enough, to really tug at my heart strings and to melt (a bit of) the ice inside me.
The story is focused on Takao, a fifteen-year-old high school student who has a passion for designing and creating shoes. He comes across as someone who has talent and passion, but who hasn't quite found his place in the world yet. He's unable to focus in school, and he begins skipping class whenever it rains, so that he can enjoy the calming weather. As the rainy season arrives in Kanto, he begins missing days more frequently, choosing to instead spend his time in the public garden under a gazebo. There, he contentedly spends time sketching designs for his shoes; but he is not alone. The first day in the rain, he meets Yukino, a woman in her late twenties. At first they don't speak much to one another, but they soon form a unique relationship, meeting under the gazebo on each rainy day -- Takao skipping school, and this mysterious woman, presumably, skipping work. Every time they meet, Takao works on his sketches, while the woman drinks beer and eats chocolate. As time passes, however, they open up to one another and form something of a friendship. This peculiar relationship then, ever so slowly, motions towards becoming something more.
Now, in my personal opinion, the evolution of a relationship is something that's rarely worth hanging the entirety of a film's plot upon. It's usually not interesting enough to warrant that kind of treatment. However, doing so works for Garden of Words because the hook is three-pronged: One, the characters are likable in their imperfection. They are flawed, but we really want to see them happy. Two, the movie looks absolutely jaw-on-the-floor amazing. With the plot's focus on rainy weather, the beautiful artwork is allowed to shine under the spot light -- and shine it does. Three, with a duration of just forty-six minutes, Garden of Words has enough time to make us care about Takao and Yukino, to build emotional tension leading up to the film's climax, and to then end -- before overstaying its welcome like so many films in this genre are prone to doing.
I think, also, what helps Garden of Words, is that nothing in this movie seems forced. Even though we can see the seeds of something sprouting up between Yikino and Takao fairly early on in the film, it comes across as being very organic. There's nothing silly like love at first sight, or one of the characters falling head over heels for the other. Instead, we, as viewers, are given the opportunity to quietly enjoy the rain with two quirky characters who are struggling to face challenges in their own lives, while enjoying the other's company. The characters display open signs that romance is not the only thing in their life -- nor is it even the most important thing. They are not empty-headed love-birds, and that is a real breath of fresh air. Perhaps because of this, factors such as the age difference between the two characters don't threaten to usurp focus like they might in a lesser film. Here, everything comes across as being just a bit more low-key, and the film is all the better for it.
Garden of Words is not without its flaws, but most of them are technical, and all of them are minor. There are, for instance, issues with the film's sound effect and voice-over volume levels. On more than one occasion I found myself reading subtitles when I couldn't actually hear any words being spoken. Upon ticking up the volume, I'd discover that a radio or intercom was present in the scene -- but I'd then have to lower the volume again, when a character's whisper would be channeled to me as a low scream. I feel like this is worth bringing up, as its the film's biggest flaw, but it's still nowhere near problematic enough to keep this from being the best animated film I've seen in years. I've already stated that it is one of the best looking ones, but I now find myself wrestling with that concept. Is it, instead, the best looking animated movie I've ever seen? I'm not sure I want to be locked down to such a bold statement, but it sounds plausible at the moment. I certainly wouldn't dismiss the notion.
I applaud Garden for having the prudence to tell its story in a timely manner. And yet, part of me can't help but feel that it was all over too soon. I really can't remember the last time I was so thoroughly engrossed by a movie. It's not uncommon to get lost in a good film-- but that's not what happened to me while watching this one. I consciously absorbed every frame of this production, listening to the rainfall, paying attention to the way lighting is casted on the people and objects, appreciating the line art, and listening to the intonation of the characters' voices. I was enthralled from the very beginning, and became more so as the film progressed. And while I won't divulge how the film ends, it is not one that ever runs out of gas. It picks up steam the entire way, and ends strongly, which definitely counts for a lot.
I feel as though my praise for this film could not be made any clearer. I consider this to be a modern classic, and to be Makoto Shinkai's masterpiece. To grant context to my opinion: I view this as being on near-equal footing with films such as Princess Mononoke, and Ghost in the Shell.
Final Rating: 9.25 out of 10.0
I, for one, enjoyed Kotonoha no Niwa very much. It's a story about a young boy and an older woman. It is unique when compared to your average romantic movies.
But there was only one down point - it's only 46 minutes long. Had the movie been a bit long, we could have seen a much greater development between the main characters.
The animation, the voice acting, the character design, the scenery, are top notch! It was like watching a live action movie.
I highly recommend this movie! It's worth it!
Kotonoha no Niwa (The Garden of Words) is the latest work from highly respected director Makoto Shinkai, the man who gave us highly regarded films such as 5 Centimeters per Second and Voices of a Distant Star. Shinkai has always had an innate ability to make the ordinary beautiful in his works, something which rings especially true in this latest offering.
The first thing that will stand out to any viewer will be the absolutely stunning visuals. It is visually breathtaking throughout, from the Urban Jungle of the distinctly Japanese city, to the almost magical natural world of the ‘garden’. Both settings feature a level of detail that surpasses almost all anime out there, even when compared to other feature length films. Be it simple things like the wheels of a train moving or the sumptuous beauty of rainfall, everything is animated exquisitely. The use of light is what really sets this apart from all other anime out there at the moment, not only does light pierce through gaps in the tree canopies above, or reflect off surfaces in a believable manner, but it is also used to staggering effect in combination with the characters. The light hits the characters and serves to embed them seamlessly into the environments, adding a whole new sense of realism to what is already a very realistic aesthetic. The characters themselves are relatively simple, but they fit perfectly with the more realistic aesthetic and tone.
The next thing that should become painfully obvious is the quite brilliant use of sound throughout the anime. From the largely piano based background music, almost mimicking the persistent rainfall that envelops all of the key scenes, to the sound effects of the rain as it hits various surfaces. But perhaps the greatest audio technique used is when sound is all but taken away, leaving only the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops as characters sit there in silence, letting the atmosphere, and symbolism take over to convey the emotions of the scene . The voice acting on display is stellar as well, with Miyu Irino doing a great job with Takao. But the stand out performance comes from Kana Hanazawa as she effortlessly conveys every emotion that Yukino expresses, from confusion to sadness, despair to relief, she does a remarkable job throughout.
The two main characters are brilliant. First we have the 15 year old Takao, who aspires to become a professional shoemaker once he leaves school. He seems to have a difficult home life and works in order to fund his shoemaking, he has little care for school and can often be found skipping class, especially during rainy mornings. Then we have Yukino, a 27 year old school teacher who spends her mornings sitting on a pavilion bench drinking beer and eating sweets, and it’s at this pavilion where the two characters meet for the first time. Other characters appear from time to time, but it’s these two that are by far and away the main focus of the story.
The way the film depicts the feelings that a schoolboy develops for a mysterious older woman, and how she views him, is at all points believable. Takao essentially becomes infatuated with Yukino, and places her up on a pedestal. He begins to think of her as an escape from his childhood, almost as reference material for him “learning to walk” as an adult. There is a very real danger with characters such as these of falling into a situation where it seems the older woman is somehow taking advantage of a young boy, almost preying on his naivety. But it quickly becomes apparent that she needs Takao as much as he needs her. In fact they both end up learning from one another, or to quote an important line from the film, they are both “learning to walk again” with each others’ help. The way the two play off each other as they gradually become closer is so natural, and enjoyable to watch, with nothing ever coming close to being contrived.
If the film has a weakness, it’s in the story department. That’s not to say the story is bad, rather it’s quite a lovely, nuanced tale of growth and love, it’s just that the viewer might be left wanting a little bit more from it. Shinkai never treads new ground with the plot in any way, and while that still leaves us with a more than acceptable end product, you just feel that if there was something extra in there it could have elevated this film to something even greater. That said, given the 46 minute run time he does a more than adequate job, but some people may be left wanting in the end. And as with every Shinkai work, the ending isn’t perfectly sewn up with all loose ends neatly arranged and dealt with, something those familiar with his works will understand.
Kotonoha no Niwa really is an exceptional film, it’s visually stunning with highly enjoyable, and relatable characters and perfect audio. The way the film effortlessly uses silence to let the visuals and symbolism become the vehicle for characterization and plot progression is just flawless in its execution. Shinkai has once again proven his exceptional ability to create a beautifully nuanced piece of art, one that deserves to go down as a classic.
It really doesn't get much better than this. Makoto Shinkai has knocked this one out of the park--every time I watch one of his movies, I wonder if his art can get any better. Hold on to your hats, because somehow, every time, he manages to produce a work of quality that completely overshadows his earlier works.
And that, my friends, is no easy task.
Story: Keeping it simple, the story is a bittersweet romantic tale of a boy who meets a stranger in the park on rainy mornings, when it is his rule to skip first period. He has a dream to become a shoemaker; she drinks beer, eats chocolate, and doesn't talk about herself. They fall in love, until late in the film we discover that she is actually a teacher at his school who has been bullied by students.
The tale is downright beautiful, especially their final argument and her confession, which leads to more resolution than love stories sometimes get in Japanese works.
Animation: I don't know that we actually need to discuss this. You know how pretty Iblard Jikan is? This is like that, except better.
Simply put, this is the absolute height of animation quality and I can't imagine how gorgeous it would be on a big screen. Lighting, subtle motions like rain falling on a pond & light spilling over the horizon, extremely natural human motion, and uber detailed, textured, and dimensional landscapes are just a few of the goodies you will encounter in the eye candy department. It manages to be both crisp and soft and completely amazing.
Sound: Again, beautiful and natural, both in music and in voice acting.
Characters: Simple and believable, and relatable. The characters' situations bring up really meaty human questions about the value of school and work, education as a path to achievement, and how difference in status can affect a romance.
Overall: If you like anime at all and are a human being with emotions, this piece is not to be missed. If you are a robot (or a cynic), you might not like the story, but the animation is totally worth 46 minutes of your time.
***Spoiler free review***
One superficial gripe I have with movies in general is how short they tend to be. I have always enjoyed books, manga, and long running shows because of the added time to build upon characters and expand the plot. I however must retract my superficialness for the animated film Kotonoha no Niwa as it has pulled on my heart strings to their breaking point.
At its core, Kotonoha no Niwa is a mature love story between student Takao and skipping work Yukari. They end up meeting on rainy days in a very lush park in the Kanto region of Japan. They began to mingle a little bit inching closer and closer to each other when all of the sudden the rainy season ends. I think that a lot of people might not like the ending of this film since it does not follow the typical good ending of most Japanese anime but I found it very fitting.
Drop dead gorgeous oh my god what the f#$@ that isn't real rain!!?
I cannot believe how pretty this anime was the characters just shine in the rain and the amount of detail of each shot really shows.
The voice actors did a really good job but the real winner was the soft piano and strings in the background. The score fitted so well with what was going on screen.
After looking back at Kana Hanazawa's profile (voice actor for Yukari) I noticed why I liked her voice so much; she plays Kosaki Onodera in Nisekoi.
I loved the scenes between these two star-crossed lovers. Pretty much everywhere in the world a relationship between two people of their status might be looked at as wrong but it works well here. There was real emotion behind every decision and resolution.
If you cannot tell I freaking loved this movie. It has a somewhat bittersweet ending but I loved it nevertheless. This movie really made me rethink what a 45 minute film could accomplish. Highly recommend to everyone.
I apologize for the short review it is 3AM here and I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot what I wanted to say.
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