REVIEW: Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

Is anyone else thinking that today’s American culture is going through a bit of a crisis? Not only Hollywood – I can’t actually think about the last time I came out of a cinema thinking “Oh, finally a really good movie!” – but also literature, or tv series, even if these last ones are still not that bad. I have grown up watching mostly Disney cartoons, followed by a passion for Hollywood movies developed during my adolescence, and now, after years and years spent watching more or less the same narratives being repeated over and over again with just slight changes, I have grown more tired of those themes so loved by American producers, of those happily-ever-after endings or those banal storylines focused on the same social and family plots that should be shared by a global audience.

In the last few decades we have finally witnessed a flow of culture going not only from the US and Europe towards the rest of the world, but also the other way round: cultures that until that moment could not have gone through an international expansion because of historical and political barriers, now have opened – more or less – to the West and have started exporting intercontinentally their cultural products. First of all, Asia, with the Japanese and Korean phenomenon. And that is why I did, too, take some time to step back and turn east, hoping to find new inspirations and stimulus. It seems like a cliché, but that is what you experience when first reading a manga, or watching an anime: you feel thrown into a different world because of people’s behaviour and sensibility.

Japanese poster of Garden of Words

Yesterday evening I watched The Garden of Words (2013), directed by Makoto Shinkai, also director and writer of the more famous Your Name. It is surprisingly a short movie, it lasts only 46 minutes, and tells the story of Takao Akizuki, a 15-year-old boy whose dream is to become a shoe maker (not like our teenagers, who want to be footballers or youtubers). On rainy days he always skips school and goes to Shinjuku Gyoen park, in central Tokyo, where he takes shelter under a small pagoda to draw shoes. One day, he finds another person sitting in the park, Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-years-old woman with whom he starts a strong friendship.

What can you say about this anime? I am not sure either, I am still trying to find words to describe it. One thing for sure is that I still feel melancholy and sadness: Japanese movies have this talent in making you feel small and lonely. The movie is in fact based on the traditional Japanese word for ‘love’ – apparently one of the kanji that now signify love (恋) in the past was written as 孤悲, or ‘lonely sadness‘.

In the end, that is the essence of this movie, that love, yes, can overcome every barrier and age gap, but that in the end loneliness is a fundamental part of everyone’s lives. You could meet people on the way that could change your life and make you grow, but future aspirations and dreams are always the priority. And it was Shinkai himself that said in an interview that loneliness is not treated here as something that has to be fixed. On the other hand, the movie wants to give support to all those people that feel bad at social relations.

Still image from Garden of Words

And maybe this is even a more educational way of seeing life, not giving in to passion or fondness, the right opposite of what Disney teaches. And that is also why I feel discomforted by this movie, because the ending doesn’t follow my expectations, but only because my way of seeing has been shaped by our own Western media. And as soon as I watch something that sends messages that are different from what I would expect, I don’t know what to make of them. When I interpret the whole movie as melancholic, others with different points of view could see it as educational or inspiring.

Still image from Garden of Words

Just to compare, it is as if at the end of Snow White, she left the prince and went to the city to open a pie shop because her calling in life is making people happy with cakes. It would be weird, right? But at the same time, it could teach children to be more realistic and practical, push them to think what to do with their lives. In the end, I don’t think it is a matter of right or wrong, it’s more about cultures and traditions. For me, it’s amazing how just a 46-minutes-long anime can reveal so much about Japan.

BACK TO THE MOVIE ITSELF animation is amazing, to recreate rain more realistically as possible they chose to use a mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI (computer animation), that is why it is so astonishingly real. The soundtrack is quite good, apart from the ending song that was waaay too cheesy (and loud) and maybe a bit inappropriate for the dramatic but emotional moment. Lastly, I feel that characters have not been developed that much, and don’t have much depth. But at the same time, not a lot more could have been done in 46 minutes.

Still image from Garden of Words

And here the main question: why only 46 minutes? Not enough money? Not enough time? I would actually love to see a longer version of it, less rushed at the end and with more time to understand develop the characters.

But animation is really what makes it so wonderful, and what pushes me to advice it to everyone interested in knowing more about Japanese culture.

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