TL;DR – two lost and lonely souls meet during the rainy mornings at a national park in Tokyo. There they learn from each other how to grow. A visual feast of a film that doesn’t deliver on the potential depth required of its two main leads.
Review (warning: spoilers)
The Garden of Words is an ephemeral story surrounding a student and teacher who meet several times at Shinjuku Gyoen (a national park in Tokyo) during the rainy season. It is an atmospheric tale about life, love, and loss. It is as much about the trials of navigating being a teenager as it is about navigating adulthood, and how both periods of time can feel similar.
For Akizuki Takao, he has identified his passion already even though he is only 15-years old. He wants to be a cobbler and design shoes for a living. He skips class and ventures to the park to sit under a gazebo doing sketches while the rain falls.
For Yukino Yukari, she has already found her lot in life as a 27-year-old teacher of classical Japanese literature. But she is ignoring her job responsibilities and spending time at the park drinking beer and eating chocolate. Why she is shunning her teaching duties is revealed later in the film.
Both are lonely and feel isolated in their lives. Through their encounters, Takao becomes drawn to Yukari in a way that a young teenage boy would towards an attractive older woman. The fact she shows interest in his sketches and allows him to design shoes for her transforms Yukari into Takao’s muse.
Yukari’s time with Takao makes her forget of the demons she is facing at work. Turns out that she is being bullied by students who are jealous of her beauty. Instead of standing up for herself, she flees to the park with beer and chocolate in hand.
Their connection grows with each rainy morning that passes until eventually Takao confesses his love for her. Yukari, initially, does not return his feelings stating she is a teacher (and inferring their age difference) but she also realises deep down their connection and tells him that the time they have spent together has saved her.
In terms of story, The Garden of Words had the potential to delve into the myriad layers of what constitutes intimacy, connection and love (forbidden or otherwise). It could have transcended romantic drama tropes and shown connection without a confession of love. It could have examined the idea of how two disparate individuals (not just in age but in overall outlook on life) could impact each other in unexpected positive ways.
Attempts are made to do this. Yukari communicating to Takao through Japanese poetry, the way Takao does his sketches using Yukari and the park as his muse, the breaks in conversation leading to the pair absorbing the moment and the beauty of the ongoing motif of rain. However, there is an over reliance on the animation and setting to convey its messages. More on the visuals in a bit.
The story lacks the drive required for a plot that is dependent on its two main characters. I don’t mean that Takao and Yukari need to be emotional thunderstorms, I mean that their personalities, backgrounds and how they came to be in the position they find themselves is never explored beyond scratching the surface. In terms of depth, Takao is probably captured better when arguably Yukari is the more tortured soul.
In the end, The Garden of Words relies heavily on the stunning animation. And let me just say that the combination of hand drawing and CGI is truly exquisite. However, we are meant to draw symbolic meaning behind what we see. For example, the rain (uncontrollable like love), creating shoes (teaching how to walk), and drinking beer and eating chocolate (an odd combination representing Yukari’s emotional instability).
There is nothing wrong in the subtle and using visuals to convey messages is a tool that allows filmmakers to subvert expectations. But the visuals need to complement not carry the main characters. In the end, the emotional bind being experienced by Takao and Yukari lacks depth because we only catch glimpses of who they are deep down.
Like a passing shower on a sunny day, this film will largely be remembered for how beautiful it looks but the story won’t leave behind any significant impression.
6 out of 10