Sunday, January 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Garden of Words

Like many an anime fan, I was curious about Makoto Shinkai's work but, since it was much too new for Sentai to be streaming it (and crunchyroll's annual "Makoto Shinkai day" was months and months off) there wasn't really anyway for me to see it. However I was tipped off that a local group (they're connected with the Japanese embassy somehow but I'm not sure how, enough that the staff speaks Japanese and you have to go through metal detectors to go into the building however) was going to be having a showing one night. So I braved the cold to see a short film set in the summer.

The Garden of Words

Takako loves the atmsophere created by the rainy Japanese summer and often finds himself skipping school to sit in a Tokyo park and soak in the atmosphere. One summer he finds that he's not the only person sitting in his usual spot, a young woman is there as well and slowly they form as a relationship as they both deal with the stress of life.

I would like to first say that 46 minutes was the perfect length for this film, it was neither too long nor too short and I'm very happy that Shinkai was able to realize this as well. But yet the film feels a bit uneven none the less, while I could empathize with Takako's struggle to an extent (working out what you want to do in life, falling in love, etc) the female lead, Yukino, felt much more flat and like the kind of woman who only exists in literary fiction. Her problems also had the potential to be handled thoughtfully and skillfully, especially since they were a bit more severe than Takako's, and watching her recover from them by itself would have been a heart-wrenching, familiar experience for many viewers but instead she feels simplified and dull. She never seems to become truly motivated to either accept or move past her problems and feels overly passive, a character who exists in some ways just to help Takako move forward in life. She has more agency and character than that, she's not completely flat, but I feel that she was built around a more idealized vision of women, of depression, of love than by how the world really works.

In truth the plot is always secondary in a Shinkai film, the visuals are the real draw with his flair for composition and color and this is in some ways the most beautiful anime film I've ever seen. Many of the backgrounds and scene setting shots are photorealistic to a ridiculous degree, I'd never heard of Shinjuku Gyoen before this film but now I, and I suspect many others, will make a point to see it in person after this film. Sadly the characters didn't quite match the beauty of the scenery, they felt too simple, too "anime" when compared to the stunning photorealism of the backgrounds, and Shinkai's trademark of shading characters and objects not with blacks or grays but with colors around them (such as making the shade on a characters face look more green than anything else) also seemed jarring. 

Regardless of it's failings, since it's so short a film I do encourage people to see it and if like me you don't find the story to your liking, well, you could always simply skip ahead to the next landscape shot...



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