Though some points of characterisation may be lacking, the overwhelming beauty on all other fronts place it as one of the most exceptionally well crafted animated films of all time
Despite its title, ‘The Garden on Words’ is by far a greater demonstrations of exceptional visuals and accompanying soundscapes than it is a work of great writing. While its dialogue is poignant and exceptionally well delivered by both the Japanese and English voice artists, the short running time and occasional missteps in character leave it unable to achieve its full potential. However, the visual mastery of the film and its near photorealistic depiction of nature is strong enough to make this a must-watch film to all who wish to see an animated beauty of the highest level.
A tale of differing maturities and age, ‘The Garden of Words‘ follows Takao Akizuki, an aspiring 15-year-old shoemaker, and Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-year-old woman he keeps meeting at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden on rainy mornings. Despite the difference in their ages, they strike up an unusual relationship that unexpectedly continues and evolves, with random meetings in the same garden on each rainy day. But the rainy season is coming to a close, and there are so many things still left unsaid and undone between them. Will there be time left for Takao to put his feelings into actions and words, and will Yukino let him peer inside the true nature of her world?
The defining feature of this film is the scope of its design and ability to harness even the most unconscious traits of the natural world. The approach storyboarding, colour, and lighting of of each frame could rival that of an Oscar-nominated cinematographer, particularly the detail given to the rain-swept landscapes of both the garden and suburban city street. From the glossy sheen of watered foliage to the ripples of a fallen raindrop, each detail is presented with a realistic depth that as of yet has been unseen among the world of animation. It is in being a work of illustration that the images take on an even deeper sense of magic than could possibly be shown in an image shot from life or even the most advanced CGI technology.
The degree to which the artists are able to replicate the traits and movements of real life is absolutely staggering, and often used as an artistic motif, such as the lens flares and subtle undertones of rainbows throughout the film. The offbeat sweep of branches in the wind give the impression of the varired weights of wood, or strength of breeze, a tait which may pass by the common viewer simply as its level of accuracy makes it feel like as assumed sight.
The tracking of the camera and it’s near constant movement allows the story to progress with a gentle atmosphere of flowing water where you feel each moment, while beautiful, is fleeting in its existence. When the camera does then linger on a moment between characters, a greater weight is given to the stillness and the subtleties of their spoken words. It is an admirable technique, but one which unfortunately does not always flourish to the extent that the creators may have intended. This, however, is a fault that falls more towards the writing of the characters than it does the art design.
For all its beauty and visual excellence, there is, unfortunately something lacking in the central characters of the film. While Takao is well crafted and admirable for his youthful naivety, and future aspirations, it becomes difficult to completely empathise with Yukino. At first, you admire her introspection and confidence in possessing “quirks”, but as the film progresses, to seems to base a greater portion of her substance of those external to herself, and thus you question her intent for interacting with Takao. It often feels that she is simply using him for her own advantage while disregarding any affect on his wellbeing. When this is coupled with her penchant for drinking beer and skipping work, her character can come across as quite distasteful, and far from a strong female model. This does not appear to be the intent of the film, which makes several attempts to display her as a victim of poor circumstance who is beginning to find herself once again, but these moments are too sporadic to cast her in a wholly positive light. Even her tears tend to raise a sense of frustration rather than one of empathy as they come with a a subtle air of manipulation, or at the very least suggest a stereotypically weak female.
These issues seem to mainly stem from the short running time, which, at 46 minutes, only just qualifies the film as a feature. With such brevity, It simply feels too little time is given given to allow the connection between the characters to flourish and become believable. Short references to their past, such as Takao’s inspiration for shoe making, or Yukari’s relationship to an ex-partner so succeed in giving depth, but often raise more questions than they answer. You sense there is a greater story to be told on both ends, and perhaps one that would solidify the importance of their pairing as characters, but without these extra moments their relationship is left wanting. This is not so drastic as to make the film unenjoyable, but merely a minor hindrance to the the overall experience that may very well pass by without upsetting many viewers.
Where the emotional connection may fall in timing, it is enhanced by the musical score and perceptive use of audio. The piano compositions by Daisuke Kashiwa are of powerful simplicity, hitting with the emotional impact of a singularly well shot arrow. This expertise of sound is not merely confined to emotional, but the swift tumbling of notes also used to great effect in showing the passage of time and one’s inability to grasp a single moment between their hands. Conversely, many scenes are devoid of music and accompanied by nothing more than the soft patter of rain and hum of wildlife - a beautiful palette cleanserthat underlines the serenity of the garden and its place as an emotional, visual, and aural oasis amongst the city life.
Much like the luscious eden of the story, ‘The Garden of Words’ is a unique and stunning creation within the larger sea of filmmaking that will leave a lasting impression on your memory. Though some points of characterisation may be lacking, the overwhelming beauty on all other fronts place it as one of the most exceptionally well crafted animated films of all time and a particularly strong treasure for those with an interest in the visual or musical arts.