It’s not often that a film, be it animation or live action, grabs you from the very first frame, hooking its viewer with a enthralling charm. It’s even more remarkable when that single frame offers nothing more than a domestic shot of rainfall striking a non-descript stone pavement. But that’s the remarkable affect inherent in the frames of Garden of Words, the new short feature from acclaimed Japanese writer/ director Makoto Shinkai.
In contrast to his previous film, the epic multi-layered mythology-based Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai delivers a gentle coming of age fable set within the public gardens of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Essentially, Garden of Words is the story of Takao, an introspective high school student whose passion lies in the art of traditional shoe making. His family life, which he shares with his older brother and a mostly absent mother offer nothing more than dull routine, while his school commitments simply weigh down and dilute Takao’s few passions. The only real inspiration that Takao draws from the world around him comes with the relentless downpour of Tokyo’s seasonal rain. In a quiet act of rebellion and self-care, the introspective teen uses the unruly weather as a cover to skip classes and to simply sit quietly, working on his designs beneath a gazebo deep within the lush gardens of Shinjuku goen.
However, one day with the rain particularly heavy, Takao discovers a woman in her mid twenties sitting in his gazebo drinking beer and eating chocolate. As the rainy season progresses, the pair eventually strike-up a friendship, isolated in their own strange void under the weathered gazebo, removed from the chaos of Tokyo and free of responsibility. That is until their worlds unexpectedly and awkwardly converge in the outside world outside their garden sancutary.
Running at a mere 46 minutes, Garden of Words fulfills its doctrine flawlessly. Shinkai’s brilliance as a storyteller and genius as a cinematographer brings life to every moment without ever becoming indulgent or distracting. Filled with beautiful imagery, this opus to young love is both captivating, poetic and yet unremarkable, allowing his characters to exist and evolve in such a naturalistic way that the films penultimate climax, which occurs post credits, is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. A beautiful meditation of story and technique, Garden of Words continues to mark Makoto Shinkai as a tour de force of Japanese cinema.