A few years ago I studied Japanese at college, and a year of that was only really sufficient to scratch the surface of the language. One of the first things I had to learn is that their writing is made up of a combination of different characters. Some of them create sounds in a similar manner to our alphabet but there are also kanji, which represent whole words or phrases. So yes, it’s complicated! The word “love” in Japan used to be written as a combination of two kanji, literally meaning “lonely sadness”. Isn’t it interesting to think that a whole culture once defined love as being driven by the need for company due to feelings of loneliness, free from all notions of romantic attraction. Makoto Shinkai took that idea as his starting point for the short film The Garden of Words, exploring how a connection develops between two people through their loneliness and social isolation.
The film initially is told from the perspective of Takao Akizuki, a 15 year old student who has dreams of becoming a shoe designer. He is keen to get out into the world of work and achieve his dreams, caring little about school, so he makes a deal with himself. When it is raining he will skip school and go to the park instead to sit on some sheltered benches and work on his shoe designs. When it’s not raining he has to go to school. He is not a particularly unhappy or bullied child – Shinkai wisely avoids all the most trodden paths in that respect, emphasising that a feeling of isolation doesn’t always have to come from extreme situations. It is simply that Takao is just a bit distant from his family and friends, feeling like he belongs elsewhere.
In the park he meets Yukari Yukino, a 27 year old woman who is battling her own demons. She spends her time sat on a bench drinking alcohol and eating chocolate. She has a job, but she is running away from all that, like Takao. They soon develop a friendship and become kindred spirits. Yukari treats Takao like an adult and encourages his dreams. Takao makes Yukari feel like life has not left her behind. When this all seems to be heading in the direction of a romantic attachment that’s a problem, and becomes even more of a problem when Takao discovers the nature of Yukari’s job, and their worlds beyond the rainy park start to coincide. This is a story that cannot have a romantic, happy ending, at least not for now, but that’s not the point of it. Remember, this is about the original Japanese meaning of love: lonely sadness. Shinkai doesn’t offer any easy solutions, nor does he even treat loneliness as an illness that needs to be cured.
Apart from being visually stunning, a really, really beautiful film, The Garden of Words, is rich in metaphor. The weather of course is most obviously used to represent the feelings of the two lead characters, and also reflect the ups and downs in their relationship. Much more cleverly, Takao’s shoe designing is used to represent how the two characters help each other to “walk again”. They are paralysed by their social isolation, particularly Yukari, and their precious time together in the rainy park helps them both to be able to move on with their lives. Ultimately they are forced to recognise that the only way to do that is to stop relying on each other in their safe haven of the park. They haven’t just been sheltering from the rain. They have been sheltering from the world.
The trailer below is in the original Japanese, but will give an indication of the beautiful visuals. The DVD and bluray release has a very good dubbed version of the film, as well as the original Japanese with subtitles. Next time we will be looking at Shinkai’s masterpiece, the highest grossing anime worldwide: Your Name. RP