Makoto Shinkai films are notable for two things: Memorable titles, and the pursuit blue ballsing the fuck out of the audience. The Garden of Words continues one of these proud traditions while completely fucking the other with the rustiest railroad spike it could get its grubby mitts on. Since the most iconic moments shared are in silence, with the only sounds being the incessant pattering of rain and the incessant melancholic plonks of the film’s subdued soundtrack, I take issue with the “Words” aspect of the title, as it’s both vague and largely incorrect.
Then again, maybe that was the point since those few words are the film’s focus and easily the highlight, but something about the title is still awkward at conveying just what the film is. Maybe ‘I Wanted an Excuse to Film Feet as part of an Overarching Theme of Transience’ would have been better, if far less pithy. Or ‘The Garden of Feetden’.
The Garden of Words follows Takao, a boy with the high aspirations of one day becoming a shoemaker. Whether it’s because of a repressed foot fetish or more likely a case of “we haven’t seen one of these in anime,” I’ll never know, though I think it’s safer to assume the latter than to suggest that there’s anything remotely sexual here. Sure, sex is occasionally bandied about here and there, but it’s only the result of a group of upperclassmen that spread nasty rumors about Takao’s eventual love interest. Said love interest is Yukari, a woman who spends every rainy day relaxing in a covered deck while ingesting nothing but beer and chocolate—the very deck that Takao skips school on rainy days to draw shoes under. If Garden of Words proves anything, it’s that delinquency and public drunkenness in conjunction are the keys to any successful relationship.
Shinkai’s intention to blue-balls the audience is very much on display as ever, and it’s no less skeevy here than it is anywhere else. It puts the concept of a romantic relationship on a pedestal to sigh over and aspire toward, but never quite reach, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of dwelling on bitter nostalgia. However, The Garden of Words is the closest that I’ve seen to making that masochism succeed. The inevitability is there, but Takao and Yukari are strong enough to stand on their own against the tides of separation, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t end up back together once Takao completes high school.
I’ve always been of the mind that romance in media is difficult to pull off effectively, because doing so means that it can’t be the end that the various plots wrap around. It’s a trap that 99% of all romance media fall into specifically by labeling themselves as romance. To me, the best romance makes you forget that the two will eventually develop feelings for each other, instead engrossing you in their mundane interactions. It should feel like watching real individuals learn an appreciation for each other, rather than two robots whose sole purpose for existing is to kiss and awkwardly flirt in a halfhearted, cynical effort to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy.
The Garden of Words is one of the only specifically labeled anime romance films I’ve seen that understands romance’s strength as a means of strengthening its characters, rather than as a vague goal to aim for at the expense of each individual, or as a set of colorful tassels to throw in just because. Takao and Yukari’s interactions are entirely believable, because they progress organically as they rely on each other for moral support through personal crises. Theirs is a relationship born of an emotional need for support through hard times, illustrated through the ham-handed, if competent theme of rain and a noticeable focus on feet.
When it finally grows into an extremely tenuous romance, it feels like a natural progression rather than a forced development. Even then, it’s refreshingly auxiliary, with the two serving as friends more than anything else. The best example comes roughly halfway through the film when Takao confronts some uperclassmen that forced Yukari to take a leave of absence from her job by spreading rumors about her. His fury is understandable because they harassed somebody that he knows doesn’t deserve it, not specifically because he’s attracted to her.
It’s incredibly easy to get embroiled in Yukari and Takao’s lives, helped largely by consistent, nearly perfect pacing. It never reaches the plodding, navel-gazing banality of 5cm/s, nor speeds toward a conclusion of innocent, G-rated love while disregarding everything that leads to that point. Nothing drags the film down, and the connection between Yukari and Takao is palpable. The moments that they spend interacting are treated with the utmost care so that none feel superfluous or wanting.
The Garden of Words is a cut and dry, no-frills affair that remains fairly down to earth. With the elusive twins of solid pacing and fabulous visual direction holding it up (though Shinkai doesn’t get points for that anymore), there’s a surprisingly poignant tale that does damn near everything right. It sure isn’t perfect, with some elements being shallower than they could’ve been, but everything that eventually goes back to Yukari and Takao makes this a solid watch.