Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kotonoha no Niwa (Garden of Words) Review

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenplay: Makoto Shinkai
Music: Daisuke Kashiwa
Character Design: Kenichi Tsuchiya

Synopsis: [ANN]
"Takao, who is training to become a shoemaker, skipped school and is sketching shoes in a Japanese-style garden. He meets a mysterious woman, Yukino, who is older than him. Then, without arranging the times, the two start to see each other again and again, but only on rainy days. They deepen their relationship and open up to each other. But the end of the rainy season soon approaches …"

No question about it, Makoto Shinkai is the master of visual effects and poetic expressions, and I dare say Kotonoha no Niwa is his most exquisite work to date. In his last film Children Who Chase Lost Voices, through an effort to emulate Miyazaki's style of story telling, I felt like Shinkai lost a bit of the essence that makes his own works so unique and mesmerizing. What we see in Kotonoha no Niwa is not just the Makoto Shinkai we are so familiar with but an already capable director reaching a new height – more than ever, he treats us to a world so polished, so delicate, and so beautifully crafted it's easy to get lost in. 

This film once again goes to show Shinkai is well versed in capturing the emotional nuances, the subtle but powerful connection between two individuals who happen to cross each other in the journey of life.  Takao and Yukino are two such individuals, different yet similar. Like a spell working its magic, they were brought together on a rainy day and they met every time it rained, in a world exclusively, secretly theirs – almost like a fairytale. Age didn't matter, identity didn't matter, the only thing mattered was they shared a bond, a bond built on little more than inexplicable attraction. They were both at an intersection of their life, contemplating the uncertainties of the future, and through each other, they were able to find a path to walk on. The end is a shade less melancholic than many of Shinkai's previous works, but no less poignant; after all, hope is never overrated. The breathtaking sceneries – the fields, buildings, clouds, sunset on the water, and ripples made from raindrops – all become part of the story and reflected in them is the unspoken dialogue. 

Shinkai achieved a perfect balance between narrative and art expression with his latest film. There is just enough plot to give us a clear picture of who the characters are and make the audience care about their struggles. The music and sceneries are in perfect sync with the character drama, creating an atmosphere thoroughly engrossing. The subtle movements and glances, all executed with finesse, transform the mundane into something of art. 

If I haven't said enough, I shall say it again – the visuals are absolutely stunning, even for a Shinkai film, and that, is definitely a statement I don't find myself make often. Shinkai's film always dazzles us with its brilliant array of colours, but Kotonoha no Niwa is simply dripping with colours and life in every frame. I'm not even sure how to put it into words, but the visuals have a cleansing kind of effect on me. One thing I want to bring up is the character design, seems like the Ghibli-esque look is here to stay and I'm more than glad for it – I've mentioned this before, the character design in his films is one of the only things I'm not entirely fond of. This time the lines are clean, crisp, and overall fit much better into the exquisite surroundings. 

The human experience is beautifully portrayed in this film, rife with realistic emotions and rich details, though the melodrama may not work to everyone's liking.  It's a short story, and a simple one, but the message at its core easily resonates with me – sometimes it's these small encounters that change us and like raindrops that create ripples in a pond, they may inspire us in significant ways. At the end of the day, Shinkai is more of a poet than a storyteller, and the magic of his vision resides in embellishing the simplest, smallest moments in life. That said, I always get the sense that his films, this one included, are better appreciated as abstract art than conventional anime for casual viewers. Well, hats off to Makoto-sensei and his dedicated team of talents, they've once again created something worth spending every minute on. 

Overall: 9/10


  1. BEST 10/10, but sad ending

    1. Aww, I actually thought the ending is not as depressing as his previous films. But yes, I agree, it may be his best work yet.

  2. i like the artwork so much. but I still don't quiet understand with the story of makoto shinkai works if thinking too detail. even tough i fell in love with all of his movie:)
    in this story, what happened to her actually? something related with her 'walking'. or is it 'walking' to go trough her problem?
    and i agree with you that the ending is not as depressing as his previous films~

  3. Yeah, I think the shoes and walking are all symbolism for her struggles and attempts to overcome them. She was a broken person after being betrayed and bullied, so she stopped "walking" and hid herself from the world.
    But haha, Shinkai's films are always a bit abstract, it's hard to translate his art.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head when you observed that Shinkai is more of a poet than a storyteller. This film is suffused with poetry, both verbal (the tanka poem) and visual (the multiple metaphors and motifs like the rain, shoes, walking down a path, etc). I've read other reviews that have criticized the characters as not being developed enough, but I feel like they are not taking into account the fact that this isn't a TV show, that the visuals and the gestures actually do reveal a lot about the characters without words, and that Shinkai has always worked more on an impressionistic than a literal level. If anything, The Garden of Words cleaned up a lot of his rough edges and is, in my opinion, his most concise and polished film to date.

    1. Hmm, I suppose his film can be seen as oversaturated depends on how one approaches it. Though I agree with you, I think many critiques are not seeing it for what it is. He's a fundamentally different film maker from say...Miyazaki or Hosoda, whose works are a lot more concrete and straight to the point. Shinkai isn't really concerned with the big picture, whatever it is, but with the micros, the things we can't necessarily put into words. In that sense, every aspect of his film is an integral part of the experience – kind of like reading a poetry, you can't really skip a line and still expect to feel the same, but with a story, you can probably skip a few pages and won't miss too much at the end of the day.
      Yup, I also think this film is his best effort yet!! Personally, I don't find myself watching Shinkai's films repeatedly like I do with Miyazaki's works, but that's not exactly a fair reason for derogating it as inferior.