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