The Garden of Words – Closeness is the Absence of Words

The Garden of Words / Kotonoha no Niwa by Makoto ShinkaiConsidering how Voices of a Distant Star is one of my favourite anime films, and how excited I was when I discovered Makoto Shinkai‘s new films (everything following “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” which failed to impress me), it’s surprising I needed this to finally watch The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa), and of course I have a couple other films of his to watch as well.

Makoto Shinkai seems like he had taken a page from German Sociologist Georg Simmel, who spoke of “distance”, such as by secrets. We define closeness by defining distance – a secret shows us we’re close to someone by painting who is far, and only works so long others know that a secret exists. Human relationships is all that Makoto Shinkai’s first two films are about – about people who are far apart, and yet inexorably connected. The more you push them apart, the more their connection comes to the forefront.

(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that have risen in my mind as I’ve watched it. There will be spoilers. It’s a 45 minutes-long film, just go and watch it.)

This film reminded me of many Hollywood Romantic Comedies, at least the ones focusing slightly more on romance than those focusing on comedy. The first 12 minutes (until “To me she represents nothing less than the very secrets of the world.”), with the “montage” could’ve easily been stretched into 30 minutes, showing us the couple, and showing us the “easy” time spent together. The first 24 minutes or so, until the rain stops? Could’ve been an hour, as we see the people making up this “non-couple” grow to care for one another. Her running after him as he left her apartment? Easily the moment ten minutes before the film ended.

This film gave us the story structure, but didn’t do much more than that. The moments between when “the plot happens” might be the most important bits in a film, and especially in a RomCom, which is about us smiling, or us almost crying, or to summarize it, about us feeling. So, did he mess up by cutting it out? I’m not sure, what was there kept me smiling or feeling an inkling of dust in my eye.

There is no real character progression, but there is also no need. We have a small secret hinted at, and it’s revealed. The drama works. Yes, when something like the Third Harry Potter film came out it made me sigh – you can just tell people the “plot” while cutting out everything in the middle, and it usually falls flat because what had been excised is what actually gives the character depth, and which makes us care for the characters.

The Garden of Words / Kotonoha no Niwa by Makoto Shinkai - Yukino Yukari

That is not the situation in this film, we’ve just had 1-2 moments where other narratives would’ve had 5-6, we’ve had a couple of sentences where other narratives would’ve given us a 5 minute chatter, or one mostly filled with meaningful (avoidance of) glances. If anything, what had been cut from this film was most of the “plot”, most of the reveals, which to be frank don’t take more than a couple of sentences, in most RomComs.

It’s somewhat austere, but it doesn’t feel like anything is missing. RomComs live or die by those small moments between characters, and this short film had nothing but them, even if it had removed most of the words. It’s sort of funny, but for a film titled “The Garden of Words”, words are mostly significant in their absence. Not just as a form of storytelling, but as the characters originally spend time in mostly silence with one another, growing to understand and be comfortable with one another.

The 15 year old boy having a crush on the older woman didn’t feel fake, and made me recall some things I’ve seen, and some things I’ve experienced. We didn’t really get much time of either character on their own, monologuing, but that helped keep the feeling of short poetry, and even the haiku/tanka helped there. This is about short and to the point.

I almost expected the film to end with him leaving the apartment and her not running after him, because sometimes that’s how life works, but after she ran and they embraced, them not giving us the two of them reuniting in the end almost made me throw something at the screen. In the end, it’s not a Hollywood RomCom. It’s sweet, but it’s not saccharin.

It’s beautiful, and though I was originally worried we’ll get the usual Hanazawa Kana performance/personality, we received a somewhat more subdued, more mature performance from her, which fit this film. The art was beautiful, and while I personally found the piano a tad annoying and overly present, it fit the mood quite well. I keep noting how films use piano for rain, and considering this film, it just makes sense, as the characters meet whenever it rains, and something could be said of that as well.

I dunno whether to give it 7 or 8, and keep moving between the two, so we’ll call it 7.5/10 meaningful silences. There isn’t much of a film there, but one could probably find more things of interest in it, such as how we run from our hardships, and how we could rely on someone else to help us find our bearing once more, making use of the imagery of “Shoe-maker” for “one that helps us learn to walk once more.”

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