The Garden of Words is a film about a forbidden romance between a student and a teacher. But it is also about two people growing up.
|Studio||CoMix Wave Films|
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The Garden of Words is a 46-minute film that leaves an impression on you, despite its short length. Directed by former graphic designer Makoto Shinkai (who would later be known for Your Name), this movie ends up becoming one of the most picturesque anime titles I’ve ever seen in my life. Which makes it even more tragic when you’re feeling that the movie is missing a little something, but you can’t tell what it is.
A Rainy Summer
The Garden of Words begins with a narration by male protagonist Takao Akizuki, a 15-year old high school student with a troubled home life who aspires to be a shoemaker. During rainy days, he skips class to enjoy the sights at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (Tokyo, Japan).
There, he encounters a mysterious 27-year old woman (Yukari Yukino), who is skipping work and enjoying chocolate and beer. The encounter ends when Yukari notices the school crest on the boy’s jacket and leaves some parting words in the form of a tanka:
A faint clap of thunder
Perhaps rain comes
If so, will you stay here with me?
After the initial encounter, Takao continues to skip class during rainy mornings, where he continues meeting Yukari. Through limited interactions, they get to know each other through small conversations and silent moments. But despite all this, they still retain their distance. They didn’t even ask about each other’s names. But on bright, sunny days, it’s business as usual for the two of them. Takao attends class as normal and Yukari works at her job.
But despite this, they enjoy each other’s company. It’s to the point where they both desire for rainy mornings to occur, just so they can meet up.
So by far the strongest point of The Garden of Words is its art direction. Holy mother of god, this movie looks fantastic. The reason for this is that Shinkai and his studio used real-life photographs of Shinjuku as the base for the environments. And of course, rotoscoping and CGI for more realistic movements and rain sequences. This movie is just an absolutely gorgeous work of art.
Another noticeable trait is that the dialogue is pretty sparse, save for a few conversations and soliloquys from our main characters. Therefore, you also have to pay attention to the small details in the scenes to get a sense of what’s really going on and what the characters are like.
For example, the reason why Yukari carries so much chocolate and beer is because she has a taste disorder and can only taste those things—which is clearly stated later on. However, you can infer that this taste disorder is stress-induced, as her sense of taste does get better later in the story as she spends more time with Takao. Another thing to note is that chocolate is considered “comfort food,” something sweet to improve your mood. People also tend to drink beer as a form of escapism because they’re depressed. It’s these little nuances that help carry the story.
A Garden of Escapism
Continuing off of the story’s subtext, Takao feels disconnected from his school life, thinking that no one would understand his passion for shoes. Even his elder brother believes that shoemaking was just a hobby. But to Takao, it’s his lifeline to a better life. Takao views Yukari as a working adult who had already found success, even noting that she represents “the very secrets of the world.” So he makes occasional glances at her (and her feet), finding his passion rekindled by desiring to make shoes for Yukari.
Sadly, Takao’s assumptions weren’t accurate. Yukari is a docile, lonely woman who just so happens to teach at Takao’s high school for a living. But she struggles to make ends meet and is unable to move forward. At school, her own students bully her due to a rumor, which was why she planned to move away and start over. Her own kindness turned her into a doorstep to others, and she had no willpower to even put up any fight.
Rain and shoes are two common motifs in the story. As opposed to rain usually being more “lonely” or “morose” in popular culture, the context of rain in The Garden of Words is “happiness” and “escape.” Shoes are representative of “walking forward.” Both Takao and Yukari feel like they’re at a dead end in their lives and are unable to move forward. So Takao desperately tries to strive for adulthood and “move forward” in a career he wanted, while Yukari wanted to escape her troubled life.
Both Takao and Yukari found happiness at Shinjuku Gyoen on rainy days, in each other’s company. Despite Takao not knowing much about Yukari, he couldn’t help but find her mysterious charms alluring. And as summer goes by, he desired her company even more. He felt like this desire would prevent him from reaching adulthood, so he wanted to make shoes for Yukari for her troubles (whatever they may be).
And in Yukari’s case, she’s just happy to talk to someone. Her low self-esteem keeps her trapped in a world of monotony, even claiming she didn’t get any smarter since she was 15. But for someone to acknowledge her as this intelligent and beautiful woman, she gains the motivation to leave her past life behind and look to a better future.
Alas, this relationship wasn’t meant to be.
The two live in different worlds. Takao is a minor who was forced to grow up early because of his dull home life (and it’s implied his family was apathetic). Yukari is a young woman who wants to feel special for once and desires the willpower to make choices for the better. It’s a forbidden romance held back by their own personal baggage and even societal norms, due to the age gap.
But then the ending came… and I wasn’t sure if it made The Garden of Words worth sitting through… at first. It’s not bad or anything but… just wow.
So one day, Takao and Yukari met up and the rain grew intense. Yukari invited Takao over to her house and the two share a nice meal together. Takao took the opportunity to confess his feelings to her, which visibly touched her. Despite that, Yukari rejected his feelings, noting that she’s still a teacher and he is a student. She also mentioned that she was going to move next week, trying to “walk forward” on her own.
Takao felt betrayed, finding out that this woman wasn’t someone he thought she was. As he was leaving, Yukari became upset of her decision and desperately tried to make amends with him.
Annnnnnnd this is where Takao said one of the most hurtful things he could think of.
Miss Yukino, please forget what I said earlier. I was wrong… I hate you after all. Ever since we first met, you struck me… like a person I should avoid. Drinking beer in the morning, spouting off some random tanka at me… You listen all day to other people talking, yet never say a peep about yourself. You knew I was a student, didn’t you? That’s just unfair! If I’d known you were a teacher, I would never told you about the shoes. After all, you think I’ll never amount to anything! So why didn’t you say anything to me? You thought maybe you’d humor the little kid’s fantasies for a while? Tell me I’ll never live up to my expectations! Tell me I’ll never measure up to my dreams! You knew from the very beginning! So tell me, goddamnit! Tell me I’m in your way! Tell me that little kids should run along to school! Tell me that you hate me! You… It’s because you act like that! You never say what’s important! You pretend it’s none of your business! You’ve been living your whole life, alone!!
Jesus Christ, kid. That is so mean-spirited. Might as well tell a self-loathing, demure woman to KYS while you’re at it. That’s some self-victimizing bait right there.
But Yukari breaks down in front of him and hugs him passionately, venting out her frustrations back at school and that “he saved her.” A period of time passed by. Yukari had moved to her hometown where she continued her teaching career and Takao passed his final exams at school while still striving to be a shoemaker. It’s implied that the two still kept in touch since then and Takao intended to continue his friendship with Yukari when his career makes progress.
Now, as I ponder on this climax, I considered Takao’s words and… did get a little more context out of them. Basically, Takao misunderstood Yukari’s intentions because of her general behavior.
Yukari most likely didn’t tell Takao that she was a teacher at his school because she didn’t want to talk about school. She didn’t want yet another student looking down on her, as some sort of victim. She didn’t want pity, but genuine kindness. So she didn’t talk about herself that much, thinking that Takao would immediately judge her as a sad adult if he were to find out that she was doing nothing about the students hurting her. That she was just trying to run from her problems instead of confronting them. As we know, she is the opposite of what Takao thinks she is: she is depressed, insecure about herself and has little control over her life.
Unfortunately, Takao did find out after his friends told him about Ms. Yukino’s treatment at school. So Takao confronted the bullies—with unknown success—and met Yukari at the garden that day. Meanwhile, Yukari had already quit her job as a teacher by then. After Takao told her that he got into a fight, a storm suddenly blew in. The storm foreshadowed the schism that would occur in their relationship. This was the event that Yukari wanted to prevent all along, though she failed. So Takao did end up telling her off after all.
From Takao’s perspective, this woman was the only person he spilled his passions into. His family knew of his ability to design and make shoes, but they didn’t know he intended to pursue it as a career. Takao saw Yukari as his muse, to whom he spilled his secrets over to. And she listened intently, feeling happy that someone treated her like a decent human being for once. Takao even assumed that Yukari was working in an office job (not yet knowing she was a teacher at his school), viewing her as a symbol of adulthood, security, confidence and inspiration. Takao viewed himself as a child, thinking pointlessly fawning over an older woman would keep him on the wrong path. This is why he wanted to make some beautiful shoes for her, to prove that he’s an adult to her. He is genuinely in love with this woman and wants to try to close that age gap between them, as he views this relationship as just being between a man and a woman (even if said woman is nearly twice his age).
So when Yukari rejects his love confession due to the student-teacher relationship, he feels like she is treating him like a child—which he hates. And when he realizes that she didn’t give much in return for their friendship while he talked about his passions with her, he believes she was just humoring him. So he gave a typical childlike response to such a rejection: a verbal lashing. Had the movie end on that note, both Takao and Yukari would remain stuck in the same place, but then carrying even more frustrations…
But it didn’t end that way. Yukari finally got the courage she needed to stand up for herself and spilled her emotions into Takao, showing that she finally took her first step into a better life for herself. This also encouraged Takao to keep moving forward too, giving him the willpower to continue pursuing his passions. The two hugged and bawled their eyes out. And then, the storm ended. The sun came out, this time as a symbol of progression. They can finally stop pretending to be powerless, and walk forward. Yukari saved this relationship.
Alas, life goes on and the two went their separate ways. Not because they don’t have feelings for each other, but because neither feels worthy of one another just yet. Yukari found peace in herself but still felt like she still had some growing up to do. Takao realized that his life was just beginning, and that he would continue working hard to catch up to Yukari. Then maybe their love will eventually be meant to be.
The more I think about this one scene, the more I realized how brilliant it is. I mean, yes. Takao’s rant was quite abrupt and uncalled for; it was loud and dramatic, compared to the solemn atmosphere of the rest of the movie. But that is the intention: he’s still a child and has some growing up to do. He did save Yukari, but that rant was Yukari’s turn in saving Takao.
With all that said, I think Makoto Shinkai managed to accomplish what he wanted with The Garden of Words. It’s an atmospheric movie where you need to pay close attention (without distractions, meaning ‘put away your damn cell phones, kiddies’) to get the most out of it. The movie portrays the traditional Japanese meaning of love between two people of different age groups, known as koi (恋). Koi is a selfish type of love, where both parties would feel lonely if they were not in each other’s company.
And indeed, this is what we’re seeing here. Takao and Yukari were both lonely people, but strongly desired to be in each other’s company. Even in a society where such an age difference is socially taboo, the movie doesn’t linger on this obvious elephant in the room for too long. Perhaps just the hope of being together will make it all worthwhile in the end, which in itself is a beautiful thing. Just one of those Romeo and Juliet type of scenarios.
This is not to say The Garden of Words isn’t flawed at all, though. The movie’s short length was a decision by Shinkai, who focused more on the actual content over the length of the content. Albeit, this is not an inherently bad thing—as I prefer a short well-told story over a long well-told story with some meaningless bullshit in it. Furthermore, the movie wasn’t made for movie theaters. It’s something that you “casually” view on computers, tablets and home theaters. From a marketing perspective, I don’t agree with this decision because even those short 46 minutes are worthy of being shown in theaters. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a movie that should be viewed casually. This is a movie you need to pay attention to in order to get the most out of it.
But… I did wish the movie was a bit longer and allowed us to get to know the characters more. We don’t really know that much about the personalities of Takao and Yukari outside of their home and school lives. I think we’re meant to assume that they’re both introverts who keep their problems bottled up inside themselves.
And I’m also aware that people may not like the ending as much. At first, I didn’t like it either because of its abruptness, bittersweet mood, and cruel tone. But during my second viewing, I realized this ending was actually brilliant. It took a chance and I think it succeeded at it.
The Garden of Words is a beautiful film with a beautiful message. And if that appeals to you, definitely check it out.
Oh, and before I forget…
Obligatory Persona 5 high-school-student-dating-hot-teacher joke, ha ha ha.
The Garden of Words$13.00
- A realistic and mature take on a friendship between two age groups.
- The story is entirely focused on the lives of the two protagonists and their relationship, meaning no pointless filler.
- The realistic visual design is absolutely gorgeous and adds to the atmosphere.
- The intentional symbols and motifs used throughout the movie, that serve to tell a deeper story.
- A pleasant piano soundtrack.
- Short length.
- Depending on how you view it, the ending may not satisfy.
- Characterizations fall a bit short once you realize you don't know that much about the main characters.
- This is not the kind of movie that you 'turn your brain off' to. You NEED to pay attention in order to gain an appreciation for it.