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Koto no ha no niwa (Garden of Words)

Posted by martinteller on July 5, 2014

Takao (voiced by Miyu Irino) is a 15-year-old student who dreams of designing shoes.  His home life is somewhat fractured, with an older brother getting ready to move out and a mother who is more interested in her young boyfriends.  On rainy mornings, Takao skips school and hangs out in a park gazebo, sketching ideas in his notebook.  One day, he meets an older woman there.  Yukino (Kana Hanazawa) is a mysterious woman of 27 who sits on the bench drinking beer and eating chocolate, revealing little about herself but struggling with personal problems.  The two form a friendship, a friendship that only manifests itself on rainy mornings.  And then the rainy season ends and the two are left to sort out their feelings.

In his latest film, Makoto Shinkai scales down from the feature-length of previous works like The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Children Who Chase Lost Voices.  This time he delivers a mere 45 minutes, and in some ways the shorter format works to his advantage, reducing his opportunities to meander or get bogged down in goofy sci-fi concepts.  In essence, it’s much the same as his other films, most closely his best one, 5 Centimeters Per Second.  The tone is wistful and romantic.  Even though it takes place in the modern day, the movie achieves a sense of nostalgia through thoughtful voiceover that is always evaluating the situation from an outside perspective.  And as always, the artwork is unbelievably gorgeous.  Through color and detail, Shinkai makes even a cell phone sitting on a towel look like something miraculous.  There is barely a frame of this picture that doesn’t look amazing.  Shinkai has such a gentle and wondrous viewpoint.

The story isn’t much — a tale of impossible romance with some self-discovery notes — but Shinkai makes it compelling both through his enchanting style and the sensitive characterization of Takao.  It is interesting how he just barely flirts with taboo subjects (foot fetishism, adult/teen relationships), hinting at them just enough to put them in the viewer’s mind without actually suggesting them.  There is too much sweetness for any prurient thoughts to really take root, but the hints are there.

Ultimately, however, Shinkai shoots his movie in the foot with an ending not only includes an unrealistic and unwarranted burst of emotion, but punctuates it by launching into a saccharine pop song on the soundtrack.  After so much restraint, such an outburst could be cathartic… in this case it just feels out of step.  If it wasn’t for the awful song, it might have worked.  Unfortunately, the lovely experience ends on a sour note, but it’s still a very lovely film.  Rating: Good (78)


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