Shinkai has followed his fantasy epic Children Who Chase Lost Voices (which screened at Reel Anime last year) with a smaller story set in contemporary Japan that only runs for 43 minutes. While drawing in a public garden in the middle of the city, 15-year-old Takao meets a mysterious older woman, Yukino. Over the course of the rainy season, they bond over their shared love of the rain and the escape that the garden provides, unsure how or whether they should meet beyond their sanctuary.
The Garden of Words is another visually sumptuous film from Shinkai, who depicts both urban Japan and the natural wonders of the garden with a level of detail that is rare even for anime features. From dicing onions to the precise movement of rainfall as it becomes a downpour, the skill of Shinkai and his team in translating small moments into vibrant animation is astounding. Each shot can be basked in, particularly those of tiny instances of natural beauty, which are peppered throughout. Even the more mundane sights of the city are portrayed just as vividly. More than any other anime, it makes me feel like I’ve visited a Japanese city.
By taking pains to immerse viewers in its worlds rather than rush them through a narrative, anime regularly demonstrates the intoxicating power of animation to capture our world and present it back to us as something new and surprising. The painstaking effort of Shinkai’s team to recreate seemingly inconsequential moments and images registers even if we don’t realise it, enabling us to be awed at the simplest features of our surroundings, the craft in depicting it reminding us of its complex wonders. This is one of animation’s chief joys, and Shinkai makes it a priority.
But like Children Who Chase Lost Voices, the ravishing visuals in The Garden of Words are not quite backed up by the story and characterisation. An adult-teenager relationship will likely face social opposition, raising questions about relative maturity and the potential for exploitation. However, the film chooses not to tackle any of these issues (Shinkai explained to us that he opted not to make the film too heavy). Granted, romantic stories routinely choose not to deal with gritty realities, and that’s fine. Charming, idealised, sweet relationships are wonderful to experience on film, and anime excels at them.
But by choosing a more controversial pairing and a tone of understated psychological and social credibility, Shinkai shouldn’t be aiming to present a gentle, risk-free courtship more appropriate to Studio Ghibli. Instead, he has an opportunity to explore the complex issues that arise from a sincere bond that is nonetheless judged skeptically by society at large, and the additional complications that could have been layered into a feature-length film would have made the story more daring and psychologically rich. The natural beauty and the chaste nature of Taoko and Yukino’s bond could have remained intact, but the film would have felt truer to itself. Alternatively, Shinkai could have presented a more conventional teenage or adult relationship in the stunning environment he has created and freed himself from a narrative that is fundamentally harder to explore and resolve. Ultimately, The Garden of Words feels like it couldn’t quite bring itself to be a Satoshi Kon movie.
Some details of the character’s backgrounds aren’t clear enough either, and the script’s hesitation in fully exploring Taoko and Yukino’s attitudes makes the climactic outburst feel jarring and unearned. It’s an easy, sentimental resolution to a story that demanded more moral ambiguity to be credible and satisfying. The film is certainly ambiguous, but in a muddled rather than understated way.
But despite not exploring that relationship to the extent that it deserved, The Garden of Words is otherwise a triumph of serene observation and quiet beauty. The craft of this film and its meditative power simply must be experienced. Shinkai has mastered that side of his art, from his choice of moments to the technical skill needed to realise them. I just hope that his next script is also fully realised, because that film could be transcendent.