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.

Opinion: video games as art? pt. 2

… As introduced, let’s continue where we left off last Sunday. (If you missed pt. 1, you can go back to it here)

So, we were talking about the video game Journey, and how it connects to the topic we are going to explore today: video games as a form of art. So, yes, I’m not just telling you that video games should be seen under a more positive lights by parents, but that they should also be considered as art.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011

If this ↑ was a digital painting by Pinco Pallino, the most famous digital artist in 2019, wouldn’t it be art?

Fe, 2018

What about this? Would you consider it beautiful enough to have it printed and hanged on the wall of your bedroom?

I actually would, is it just me?

Actually, the team of video game companies also include artists – the only difference is that they are ‘game artists’. They take care of the visual development of the game, and that means that they determine the graphics, colours, ambience, of the environment where the character is going to be.

The making of two characters in League of Legends, 2017 © Riot Games

This is usually done just like it was an animated movie: maybe starting with drafts made by hands, then transferring them on a computer and translating them into 3D models. But so many different techniques can be used: some games are 2D, with a retro-feeling, some others are iper-realistic, others again are more particular and made by independent developers. So, if video games actually have artists producing them, why are they not considered art?

Metro Exodus, 2019 – she’s a bit creepy, isn’t she?

Of course, there are also games that don’t look that good (especially when representing people, apparently they’re so difficult to render in video games). Once again, I find games to be quite similar to cinema, but with a ‘smaller’ audience: some of them have a horrible director, in others the screenplay doesn’t make sense, others again seem paintings, like Wes Anderson’s.

It is the same with video games: some of them have a good story, others are boring, others again touch the player because of the themes or the digital rendering. And you choose which game to play according to the genre you usually like, just like deciding which movie to watch. So why is cinema an art and video games are not? Is it because, with video games, your experience is influenced by your behaviour in the game? Is it because of interaction, one of the main components of video games which is not, on the other hand, present in other artistic mediums like fine art or cinema?

Still from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018

This last statement can actually be pretty easily contested. Recently, the new episode of the famous TV series Black Mirror called Bandersnatch introduced in the world of media the concept of ‘interactive film’: the viewer engages in the story by taking decisions for the main character. Just like those video games that are, let’s say, less interactive than usual, where you cannot use your arrows to move the character but you can determine his/her decisions.

Rain Room at Yuz Museum, Shanghai © Virginia Bianchi

And fine art as well is becoming more and more interactive and is trying to let the public be not just an audience but also an important part of the artwork itself. I have to examples for this: first of all, the exhibition called Rain Room by Random International, which I have seen in Shanghai but that I know has been around the world for quite some time.

As you can see from the picture, it is a whole exhibition focused on this platform where rains. Thing is that thanks to special sensors, the rain stops on the head of the visitors, who can wander around, with rain pouring at 20cm from where they are standing. Here, the movement of the visitor has a central impact on how he lives the whole experience, the artwork itself wouldn’t have the same meaning if just observed from the outside.

teamLab Borderless © teamLab Inc
teamLab Borderless © Virginia Bianchi

Second example, another permanent exhibition that I know has had quite a lot of success as very ‘instagrammable’, realized by teamLab in what is now called the *inhales* Mori Building Digital Art Museum Epson teamLab Borderless *exhales* in Tokyo. ‘Borderless’ since the exhibits are not confined to their respective rooms, but they transition from one to another. There are many different rooms with different light effects, but most of them are interactive, they react to the audience and they are never repeated: it is not that they are on the loop, and the lights repeat themselves after a while, but their movement depends on audience participation through what is called ‘smart learning’. The technology used in this exhibition perhaps is not that connected to gaming in particular, but it is another instance of art defined by the collective and interactive experience of the audience.

This is just to say that the excuse that video games are not art because of interactive features is not an option. So why are video games so far from the general idea everyone has of art? I suppose that the answer is that it’s just because they have never been considered as such. Probably for the fact that they have been first developed as entertainment, and the focus on aesthetics came only later. But I want to think that it is possible to change how people perceive video games, and I want to try to make other see what I see when playing a game. A

Hope you enjoyed the second and last part of article, and feel free to leave your thoughts below!