Makoto Shinkai, “Garden of Words / Koto no ha no niwa” (2013)
Makoto Shinkai is a new name to me and he has been billed as the next Hayao Miyazaki so it’s just as well that I caught this film at the 2013 Japanese animé film festival in Sydney. Unlike his more famous compatriot who likes to deal with wide-ranging plots and themes, Shinkai prefers a small-scaled scenario centred around two characters in the 45-minute “Garden of Words”. Set in Tokyo over summer and autumn, the film focuses on a 15-year-old schoolboy, Takao Akizuki, who skips morning classes during rainy days to visit a park where he whiles away the early hours sketching shoes and dreaming of becoming a shoemaker. A mysterious young woman, older than Takao, visits the park as well and the two become friends. The friendship develops into a romance, albeit one burdened by a secret on the woman Yukino’s part. Takao and Yukino’s friendship however comes to a crisis when Takao discovers who the mystery woman is and why she seems to have so much free time in the mornings.
The film’s narrative focuses on the obstacles that lie in the way of ambition or desire, and the loneliness and alienation that accompany the individual’s determination to forge his or her own way in life and ignore convention. Takao’s desire to make shoes makes him an oddball at home and at school, and blinds him to common school gossip about Yukino. Yukino herself suffers alienation from the school community due to harassment by students and cover-ups by other teachers anxious to preserve the school’s reputation. The loneliness the young teacher and the student experience brings them together, and the connection they feel fuels Takao’s determination to pursue his shoemaking dream.
The film’s strengths lie in the poetic beauty of the natural world in which Takao and Yukino spend early mornings while rain falls around them, the way it changes and how those changes reflect the changes in the two characters’ lives through the summer. Shinkai captures the different forms of rain from early morning shower to tropical summer downpours accompanied by cold winds and hail in his animation (much of it hand-drawn) and uses these forms to help flesh out the film’s ambience and characters’ moods, and advance the plot. Much attention is also devoted to the portrayal of changes in the general city environment around Takao and Yukino as early rainy summer becomes stinking-hot late summer and early autumn. The film often adopts bird’s-eye view points in its delineation of the Tokyo city skyline, urban scenes and train journeys taken by Takao. Birds and trees are drawn and given life in graceful detail.
Actual characters are not drawn very well but the voice actors playing them are very good. Kana Hanazawa is particularly good as the shy and uncertain Yukino who gives every indication of battling depression and lack of confidence in interior scenes where she is alone. The plot unfurls at a leisurely pace, giving just enough information about characters when needed to keep the audience involved yet allowing viewers the space to imagine how Takao and Yukino came to be the alienated characters they are and being pleasantly surprised to be proven right (or wrong).
The film fails at its overly melodramatic climax when it cuts away from Takao’s anger when Yukino makes a decision that has the potential to end their friendship and a melancholy pop song appears over a sequence of city scenes. The conclusion is satisfying if appearing incomplete: Takao continues to beaver away at making shoes in his spare time and Yukino is in the process of making a new life for herself that may or may not have room for Takao.
Takao and Yukino’s paths in life may not cross again but their journeys may serve as a parallel for Shinkai’s own journey in becoming an animé creator and director in his own right, not content merely to be a Miyazaki clone but one to be reckoned as a rising force in the animé industry.