I spent a day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden this past Spring, during Sakura season. In fact I’ve gone there twice over the years and ironically, it was raining on both days. It was indeed very beautiful in the rain, but here’s the truly remarkable thing: the garden as depicted by Shinkai feels more real to me than the place I visited and saw with my own eyes. This isn’t a weak attempt at being clever, or hyperbole – it’s the absolute truth. And there’s perhaps no greater compliment I can pay to Shinkai-sensei’s gifts as an artist than that.
There are times when watching a Shinkai film where I wonder how it’s even possible that a human being can create animation of such surpassing beauty, and Kotonoha no Niwa is certainly no exception. There are images in Byousoku 5 Centimeter that remain peerless for me, and as a whole that remains my favorite Shinkai film. But Garden of Words is, on balance, probably the most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen. In terms of background detail, fluid animation, exquisite and seamless use of CGI and sheer style it sets a new standard even for this director.
But you know, all that technical stuff doesn’t really begin to do justice to what Shinkai does. I can never seem to do better than the term that occurred to me after 5 CM to describe his vision: “more real than real”. Shinkai has a poet’s soul, and somehow he manages to see the essence of what makes something beautiful and capture it with art and animation that’s realistic, but transcends simple realism. The usual Shinkai standards are here: trains, birds, snow. There are also the loveliest character designs of his career, and a beautiful canvas upon which to paint in Shinjuku Gyoen. But the most stunning moments for me in Kotonoha no Niwa are when Shinkai captures the heartbreaking beauty of the mundane as only he can. Dust motes in a beam of sunlight. Flakes of chalk falling to the floor of a classroom. Drips of rain in a puddle, a water strider on a pond. No one in my experience has ever been able to find the exceptional in the ordinary the way Shinkai can, and I thank my lucky stars every day that he chose anime as the outlet to express his vision.
With a Shinkai movie, there’s always the question of whether the story will live up to the visual artistry. As I said earlier, to me Shinkai-sensei is a poet, and as such I think he works best working with spare, simple plots that express his keen sense of human emotion. I enjoyed Hoshi o Ou Kodomo very much, and I think it’s criticized more than it deserves to be. But that said, it’s easily Shinkai’s most prosaic work. It’s burdened with too much conventional plot and it’s too long, and neither of those elements play into Shinkai’s strengths. It feels too transparently like Shinkai’s attempt to make a Ghibli film, and Ghibli has already pretty much written the book on how to do that.
With Garden of Words, Shinkai has returned to his comfort zone, and the results are predictably impressive. As with Byousoku 5 CM this is a short film – barely 45 minutes – and an even simpler one in terms of plot. Shinkai has even used a poem as the device that ties the film together, a tanka that expresses much about the state of mind of the two leads:
A faint clap of thunder
Clouded skies, perhaps rain comes
Will you stay here with me?
This is the quote that Yukino Yukari (Kana Hanazawa) reads to young Akazuki Takao (Irino Miyu) on the morning of their first meeting in a gazebo at the old Imperial Garden. Takao is 15; Yukari, we later learn, is 27. The boy is sure he’s seen the woman somewhere before, but can’t say where. She’s drinking beer and eating chocolate, much to his horror. They don’t talk much – he sketches, surreptitiously staring at her from time to time, and she stares out at the pond in the rain, the Taiwan Pavilion an imposing sight on the far shore.
These scenes under the gazebo form the heart of this small, simple film. Akazuki is an odd sort, a daydreamer who loathes “that childish place” he’s required to attend and skips out every morning it rains to go to the garden. Akazuki’s dream is no ordinary one either – to make shoes for a living. As for Yukino-san it’s only clear that she’s troubled, running from something – she tells the boy she’s playing hooky from an office but there are obvious signs that she’s been suffering deeply. Eventually the beer turns into coffee, and the silence turns into quiet, friendly conversation as the boy inevitably falls in love with the woman.
If you’ve seen Shinkai’s films you’ve been down this emotional road before, and have some idea where it leads. I wouldn’t say Kotonoha no Niwa breaks any new ground for him, especially, and it lacks the incredible emotional resonance of the “Cherry Blossom” chapter from 5 CM Per Second – the longing so intense and pure that you felt it in every cell in your body. But it’s effective nonetheless, because this is a story Shinkai is temperamentally and stylistically suited to tell. While there are moments of intensity the tone of the film is mostly subdued and reflective, and it’s clear that Shinkai is stating his belief that two souls can connect even if the calendar makes it inconvenient for them to do so. It never seems anything other than natural that this boy – an old soul if ever one lived – should come to love a woman 12 years his elder, or that she should come to love him, even if circumstances (their age and the fact that, as it turns out, she was a teacher at his school) conspire against them.
I do miss the work of the supremely talented Tenmon with the music, though Kashiwa Daisuke does deliver a suitably mellow and reflective soundtrack. As with Hoshi o Ou Kodomo Shinkai has chosen to go with big-name seiyuu for the leads here, a departure from his philosophy earlier in his career. Hanazawa does quite well with the wounded, too-kind Yukino, wandering aimlessly through the wreckage of her life with only Akazuki-kun to cling to – we never forget whose voice it is we’re hearing, but she’s thankfully quite understated by her usual standard. It seems almost unnecessary to say that Miyu is superb – no seiyuu in anime handles quiet scenes of emotional depth and complexity better than he does. Miyu can be theatrical when he needs to be but his true mastery is in doing more with less, and in finding the emotional heart of the characters he plays. In that sense, he’s ideally suited to be Shinkai’s muse.
The emotional climax of the film comes on a day when the two haven’t seen each other for many weeks – the rainy season is over, and Takao hasn’t visited the park (well aware, perhaps, of how complicated things will become if he follows his heart). He decides to visit on a sunny day, desperate to see Yukino again, and as the day fittingly turns to spectacular rain delivers to her the answering verses of her tanka:
A faint clap of thunder
Even if the rain comes not,
I will stay here, together with you
Endings with Shinkai are always a matter of some consternation with his fans, it seems. There’s a sense of hope in this one, and it’s important that you watch the short scene after the credits to understand just where the film leaves Takao as a character. Practicalities are never glossed over in a Shinkai story – we’re a part of the world we live in, and our lives are affected by factors over which we have little control. But more so than with Byousoku 5 Centimeter there’s a sense here that the characters have taken a measure of control over their lives and come to understand what’s truly important to them. As with all of Shinkai-sensei’s films there’s less a feeling that we’ve reached the end of the characters’ stories but rather stopped between chapters, and that the story will continue once the cameras are turned off. In the case of Kotonoha no Niwa, those next chapters seem more hopeful than we’re used to – the feeling is that a world of possibilities exists for Takao, and that his life is only beginning.
ED: “Rain” by Motohiro Hata