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Not so long ago, in the pages of this here very blog what are you reading like, I reviewed Makoto Shinkai’s 5cm per Second and my good Lord, it bored me so. It bored me like Sarah, plain and tall.
Well, Shinkai apparently took my criticisms onboard and went away and created Garden of Words, a movie that has all of 5cm per Second’s stunningly gorgeous visuals and sumptuous sound design but which actually marries them to interesting characters and some class of plot. I mean, I don’t want to take credit for this critically acclaimed film but honesty compels me.
Anyway yes. Okay. I am now on board. I am on the Makoto Shinkai train (and the dude does love his trains). Like 5cm per Second, Garden is slow and relies heavily on atmosphere but there is a definite sense that it’s telling a story patiently and methodically and not faffing about and wasting your time. The characters are also far more distinctive and memorable, compared to the 5cm per Second’s leads who were so bland and grey you could use them to wallpaper the walls of a dentist’s office. For instance, one of the main characters, Yukari, spends her days in the local park drinking beer and eating chocolate because her depression has dulled her sense of taste and those are the only flavours she can experience. That’s good writing, because it informs us of an important character trait (her depression) but does it in a way that’s unique and memorable and makes her stand out from all the other sadsacks (I’ve had depression, I get to use that word).
The movie begins with the two things that get Makoto Shinkai out of bed each morning; weather and trains.
15 year old school student Takao Akizuki hates taking the subway when it’s raining so instead he blows off his morning classes and goes to sketch in the park. Takao is a boy who’s fascinated by shoes and who lives with his older brother and their mother, a drunk who only dates men close to the age of her sons.
It’s raining in the park (but, like, in the most gorgeous way possible with every drop of rain being a perfect glittering constellation of fractured light) and Takao takes shelter in a…what do you call it? Gazebo? You know, those park…hut things…
He discovers he’s not alone. There’s a woman there, drinking cans of beer in the park. This has happened to me plenty of times, but honestly I don’t remember it being quite as hauntingly magical.
They sit in silence for a few moments and Takao notices that the woman, Yukari, is drinking beer and eating chocolate in a park in the morning which apparently is not considered normal in Japan? She seems familiar and he asks if they’ve met before and she says no. This scene is beautiful in just how well in captures the ordinary, everyday awkwardness of trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public. I imagine. I mean, I haven’t actually done that since around 2008 but it feels right. Yukari notices the emblem on Takao’s school uniform and cryptically recites a tanka, which is like a Japanese poem for people who think haikus have gone too mainstream. She then extends her umbrella and walks off into the rain.
At home, Takao cooks dinner for his brother….Takao’s Brother…who tells him that he’s going to be moving in with his girlfriend. Apparently their mother has taken the news badly and has gone to stay with her much younger boyfriend for a while. Tako notes that their mother looks very young for her age and Brother snaps that that’s because she’s a lazy bum who’s never done a day’s work, unlike Takao who looks “a hundred miles of shitty highway”. That’s a…weird line but I really dig it for some reason. In fact, the dialogue in general is a major step up from 5cm a Second. Granted I’m comparing one English dub to another so it’s hard to know how much is Shinkai’s script and how much is good translation but whatever it is, it’s working.
Okay, so a few days pass and it rains again. Takao goes back to the park and…
Hey, I just realised something. Long passages of this movie are wordless and take place in a park, not a garden. I’m not saying The Garden of Words is the worst possible title but it’s definitely in Trade Descriptions Act territory. Anyway, he goes back to the park and Yukari’s there, still knockin’ ’em back (assuming she ever left). They get talking and he reveals that he’s on the mitch and she admits that she’s skipping work. He suggests that she have something to eat and she shows him all the chocolate she’s eating so it’s all good.
The rain lets up and Takao explains to Yukari that he’s made a deal with himself; he’ll only ditch school when it’s raining. Yukari says that maybe they’ll meet again because it’s got to rain sometime. And in narration, Takao says “And just like that, it was the start of Kantō’s rainy season.”
We now get a montage of weeks going by, lots of gorgeous shots of sunlight dappling through leaves, lots of rain and of course, lots of trains.
Takao’s constant raincations from school are getting him into trouble but he doesn’t care because his time with Yukari has made him realise what he really wants; to make shoes and for Yukari to see him as more than just a kid. Okay, so here’s where the movie starts getting a little…uncomfortable.
It’s possible to view this film as a love story between a fifteen year old boy and a twenty seven year old grown ass woman. And that’s obviously, y’know, yeesh. But the thing is, the movie keeps everything so ambiguous that’s it’s really hard to pin down what actually is going on between the two of them. I mean, there’s not a hint of any sexual activity here. Takao’s clearly attracted to Yukari but Yukari’s feelings towards him are…well, like I said. It’s difficult to pin down.
Speaking of Yukari, we learn that she’s struggling with serious depression. We also learn that she had to take an extended leave of absence from work because of “rumours”. Her ex-boyfriend, who also works with her, talks to her on the phone and offers to help her with paperwork for quitting her job. Yukari tells him that she’s doing better at the moment, and that her sense of taste has returned but she lies to him, telling him that the reason is a friendship she’s struck up with an “old lady” who she met in the park.
We get another trip to the land of troubling ambiguity when Yukari gives Takao a gift of an expensive coffee table book of shoe designs. Takao is overjoyed and asks if he can make her a pair. She agrees and we get a long sequence of him measuring her feet to gentle piano music. Again, it’s really hard to know if I should be squicked out by this or not. Can’t a fifteen year old boy measure a woman’s feet? Well can’t he? But…Yukari’s motives here aren’t really clear. Is she just doing this because she wants to encourage a talented kid in his chosen areas of interest or does she have some kind of ulterior motive…
Anyway, the sun, also known as the cockblocker of the sky, comes out to put a stop to those shenanigans and the raisy season ends. Day after day of sweltering sunshine follows and Takao and Yukari don’t each other. Takao spends his days working his part-time job to save up money for cobbling school and spends his nights making really shitty shoes.
Yukari, for her part, spends her days in the park getting wasted and musing aloud how she’s really no different now than how she was at fifteen which, however true it may be, will not fly with the judge, Yukari.
With summer holidays over, Takao returns to to school and is stunned to see Yukari walking down the corridor because it turns out she’s one of the teachers at his school. But, between him cutting all those classes and Yukari spending the most of the year on a bench in a drunken haze thick enough for Jack the Ripper to go stalking in, he never knew that. Takao’s friends fill him in on all the juicy, juicy gossip. One of the students, Aizawa, was jealous of Yukari because she thought her boyfriend was attracted to her and so she spread a rumour around the school that Yukari had slept with one of her students (AS IF SHE WOULD THE VERY IDEA) and basically Yuakri’s life a living hell. Alright, so in my review of 5cm a Second I mocked the idea that Shinkai is the next Miyazaki and, while I still think that’s a bit overblown, I will give credit here. There is a wordless scene where the body language is so perfectly rendered that it reminded me very much of Miyazaki. And yes, Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a scene where Takao watches from the window as some of the school girls tearfully apologise to Yukari for spreading the rumours about her.
Just tells the whole story, doesn’t it? You don’t need words, everything is just conveyed through expression and posture. Beautiful. Absolutely wonderful work.
Meanwhile, Takao corners Aizawa after class and smacks her across the face (right, because that’ll make Yukari look good) and gets the shit kicked out of him by Aizawa’s boyfriend.
The next day it’s sunny and Takao decides, to hell with the rules, and goes to park anyway. Yukari is there. Takao finishes the tanka that she spoke to him at their first meeting, revealing that he finally understands her sinister ulterior motive; she’s a Japanese lit teacher and she was trying to get him to learn. Yukari apologises for not telling him she was a teacher, saying she honestly thought he knew because everybody knows the legend of Yukari the Japanese Literature Teaching Lady-Nonce.
Suddenly, the heavens open and they’re soaked through. They return to Yukari’s apartment and Takao cooks them dinner while Yuakri irons his clothes dry. They share a meal together and, in narration, both of them say that this is the happiest they’ve ever been. Takao tells Yukari that he loves her.
She blushes, and then tells him that he should address her as “Miss Yukino.”
Humiliated, Takao gathers up his things, thanks her for her hospitality and leaves.
Okay, well. That was obviously painful and hard for everyone but I think we call all agree Yukari did the right and responsible thing and oh hell here we go…
After he leaves, Yukari breaks down in tears and runs barefoot out into the rain to catch up to him. Angrily, Takao tells her that he hates her for stringing him along and making him think that he could actually achieve his dreams. He accuses her of being a weak loser who can never open up to anyone and suddenly she embraces him and tells him that they’re time in the park saved her life.
Lot to unpack here.
Okay, firstly I have to say that this final scene doesn’t quite work for me. The acting is excellent (at least in the English dub) but the music is really intrusive and the whole staging with the sun suddenly bursting out at the final climactic moment, it’s all a bit much.
That said it is a weird, troubling, ambiguous, visually gorgeous end to a weird, troubling, ambiguous, visually gorgeous movie.
Is it simply the story of a woman grappling with mental illness who came out the other side thanks to an unlikely but perfectly innocent friendship with a teenage boy? Or is it a much darker story of an older woman sexually preying on a kid too young to know any better? Like I said…it’s hard to pin down.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression but Makoto Shinkai has definitely come around in my estimation with this film. It’s gorgeous, thought-provoking, fascinating and deeply troubling all at the same time. Yeah, I guess that is a recommendation.
As per usual with Shinkai, the backgrounds are stunning, the animation is…decent.
You really want those two crazy kids to make it work until you remember that one of those crazy kids is actually a crazy grown ass woman.
Aizawa would probably have a higher score if she was in more than one scene.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
They’re there, and they do their job, but it’s really all about the leads.
Nice, if a little intrusive at times.
FINAL SCORE: 72%
Next Update: 13 December 2018
Next time: Time to go back to school…