I watched Garden of Words last night – two days after I said I would (not that that matters, or indeed, that anyone’s checking). It’s one of those anime that everyone tells you to watch so much – tell you how incredible it is, so many times, that you sort of just, put off watching it without even realising it.
As everyone says, and I should probably put this out there now, it really is an exceptional piece of work. At just over 45 minutes, it’s also very short – not that that’s particularly a problem.
Garden of Words revolves around a 15 year old boy who, on raining mornings only, skips school to go to the park. A peaceful sanctuary where he likes to indulge his number one passion – designing, and then making, hand-made shoes.
On one of these occasions he meets a woman, twelve years his senior, sitting in his favourite spot. Slowly but surely they strike up a tentative friendship of sorts. Somewhat awkward and adolescent, he’s struggling to find his place in the world. She’s older – but clearly has issues – eating and drinking only beer and chocolate – and first thing in the morning too.
She also can’t cook which, as anime convention tells us, is a sign that a woman is obviously mental.
It’s this blossoming friendship, teetering on the edge of possibly, maybe, being something more, perhaps – on which Garden of Words draws you in. Made almost ethereal by it’s gentle piano score and framed at all times by possibly some of the finest animation you’ll ever see.
No, definitely, some of the finest animation you’ll ever see.
There are times when Garden of Words doesn’t just look real, it looks better than real – hyper-real. As though it’s improving and refining reality. Makoto Shinkai’s ‘5 Centimeters Per Second’ is absolutely gorgeous, as I’m sure many of you will testify – but there are points in Garden of Words that far exceed what he achieved there.
I guess Garden of Words signature moments are those revolving around water. Water glistening on paving, settling on concrete, the pitter-patter of rain filling containers, being windswept across ponds – not only is it all remarkably well observed, it’s been somehow romanticised to the point where its beauty is not only laid bare, but skillfully and subtly exaggerated so you can almost feel and taste it.
If there was an award for Best Anime Water Of All Time – Shinkai would win it hands down, and then rightfully retain that crown for eternity.
But it’s not just the water – it’s also the other observations in his work that make the animation so sublime. I particularly like his (over?) use of depth of field – particularly on details like pencil drawing on sketchpads, or his focus on more domestic, incidental details like a cup resting on a table or the chopping of vegetables.
It lends Garden of Words a very homely feeling. You can imagine yourself there. It’s pulls you down to character’s level, brings you into their world and makes it all that much more involving and believable.
For 45 minutes you get an intimate snapshot into the lives of two people and, remarkably, feel as though you know them far better than you should given the films brevity.
For 40 minutes , I honestly felt as though Garden of Words was near perfect – but, for me personally, it was ever so slightly marred by the ending.
Now I’ll try to approach this as spoiler free as I can. There’s a twist in Garden of Words which, ultimately, makes their growing closeness something which can’t realistically continue. Garden of Words is very much a romance at arms length – and this is perhaps where it is most poignant. However, the climax is at odds with the tone of all that came before it.
Garden of Words is a quiet, gentle film – big on subtety and calm – and yet the closing minutes verge on melodrama to the point at I was a little embarrassed. For some reason, I find anime really struggles to ‘do crying’ particularly effectively – as though 90% of animators feel that the process of crying needs to be exaggerated in order to convey sadness.
It doesn’t – and given Shinkai’s proven ability to drive emotion without really forcing the issue, it was a touch disappointing to see this little misstep, right at the very end.
Is it a deal breaker for me? I really don’t want to end a Garden or Words review sounding as though I didn’t like it. It would be churlish to be so negative about what is, in all honestly, a near perfect film. I like the fact that it’s only 45 minutes. It doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, touching oh-so briefly on a fleeting relationship – that is at once believable and remarkably beautiful.
To miss this one would be most unwise.
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