Complete and total spoiler alert!

 

“I now think that I was learning how to walk then, as well. One day, once I’m able to walk a far, far greater distance, I’ll come for you.”

The Garden of Words,  Kotonoha no Niwa.  Directed and edited by  Makoto Shinkai.  Animated by  CoMix Wave Films. Forty-five minutes of perfection. Shinkai is better known for another modest little work, Kimi no Na Wa.

It is a story of love. Not a story of bubbly happy love – ai.  But a story of koi, solitary longing.

Takao Akizuki is a freshman boy who longs to be a shoe designer. He works every spare moment he can to save money for a vocational school to advance his cause. In the late evening, he studies his craft alone. Dad has left, big bro moves out to live with a girlfriend and Mom is a drinker who runs off with her own boyfriends.

One might say this is an anime about rain. Heavy rain, light rain, stormy rain, and rain in the hearts of the lonely. It is such a recurring theme that sunshine is the exception and every break in the rain is a portent of a change in the lives of the characters. Wind, lightning, and thunder presage stormy emotional weather as well. But doesn’t every storm break to leave us with a beautiful sparkling world? Rain and sun do combine to create rainbows, after all.

Shinkai has created what is a masterpiece of rain. Rain on the leaves, rain on the pavement, rain in the city, rain on the water. The thick fogginess of the rain that was and will be soon again. The diamond glitter of rain on the leaves in the sun. The subtle rainbows of rains just passed.

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Takao has a dream, to be a creator of custom shoes. He has few friends, his brother belittles his ambition, his father is absent and his mother nearly so. His dream is that which isolates him and yet gives him the strength to be alone. How does one develop such a strange obsession at such a young age?

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There is a flashback is of a happier time, a time when his family was together and his mother was happy to receive a pair of new shoes as a gift from the rest of the family. Shoes have become associated with everything he has lost, hence his drive to create shoes is his desire to reclaim that happiness.

This work could also be considered a masterpiece of green and grey. The sky is often grey, as is the water beneath it. The city is predominately grey with a subdued warmth. On the other hand, the foliage is a lush and verdant green, foliage rendered in fine detail and with reverence. One desperately wishes one could see it in super high resolution but 720p was the best I could do.

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Our hero has imposed a rule on himself. On rainy days he will skip his first period and go to the park to sketch his ideas. Other days he will attend school or go to work normally. He does not have much free time to do as he pleases. Why this particular filter? Why not something predictable and regular, like odd and even days? Why rain, which restricts his freedom to a bench in a small shelter and threatens his work with stray water droplets driven by gusty wind?

The rain in this work represents loneliness and it also creates aloneness. On a bright day, there would be more people in the park.  Takao prefers to work alone. Sunshine would bring out distractions, possibly even social interactions.  His dream causes his loneliness and requires aloneness. The rain provides a soft background of white noise and muted color and keeps others away while the shelter protects him from the rain, just as his dream gives him something to occupy his time and protects him from his emptiness.

I have always found being in a gentle rain while protected from it to be incredibly relaxing and an aesthetically pleasing experience. The art and the sound combine to evoke the experience in me and suddenly I’m in the Sierras in a tent looking out at the forest being embraced by a springtime shower. Such is the power of the art.

And then one day he encounters another solitude seeker in the shelter, Yukino. He is a normal young male and she is mysterious and beautiful – if a bit older. The age difference only adds to the interest. In fact, she might appear as a younger version of his mother who is also beautiful, remembered in an age of happiness for him. It was inevitable that he would want to make contact. She befriends him but never reveals her identity to him as a teacher of cultural literature at his school.

She is drinking beer and eating chocolate. She has lost the ability to taste anything else.

He cannot help but admire her. She is an adult, experienced in the ways of the world in a way he can only dream of.  He drops his eraser, she picks it up. The ice is broken and the mysterious woman shows an interest in his activity. She notices he has a school crest on his shirt and leaves him with a poem, a tanka, but he is puzzled as to what the response should be.

A faint clap of thunder,
Clouded skies,
Perhaps rain will come.
If so, will you stay here with me?

They continue to meet throughout the rainy season. She takes an interest in his efforts and even allows him to use her foot as a model.

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I am not sure what she sees in Takao. He is quiet and focused on his work. Perhaps it is a sign of maturity that he doesn’t jump into a conversation with her. He’s not on the make. Maybe he is not threatening, unlike the rest of the world. She knows he attends the high school where she teaches, yet he is unaware of her past. She is intent on keeping it that way.

Of course, I have by now fallen hopelessly in love with both of them. (Damn! Now I have to go back and rewatch Summer of ’42.)

 

 

Yukino’s current crisis of being was caused by another boy perhaps a couple years older than Takao. (Or maybe the boy’s girlfriend. Or maybe by Yukina herself.) We don’t have the details but we know he made a pass and she rejected him. We don’t know if the rejected boy was angry and incented his girlfriend to cause her trouble or she independently decided to ruin the object of his affections. We do know that her husband left her and the school officials threw her under the bus. A rumor about a forbidden affair was started by the girlfriend that went viral. Yukino is both gentle and vulnerable. Such people are easily damaged by the hardness of the world.

I cannot help but wonder if the boy she rejected earlier had sensed that she might be interested. I cannot help but wonder if she had been unconsciously attracted to him, as she is to Takao. Then reality kicks in, the contact is inappropriate and must stop before getting “serious”. Now we’ve gotten to the core of Yukina’s problem. She has transgressed greatly, breaking both teacher-student trust and the taboo of an adult-adolescent relationship. Even if nothing physical happened, even if nothing was intentional, in her heart she knows she has sinned, she has hurt her charge and failed her fiduciary requirement. Words like pedophile and child predator whirl in her head. She is incapable of mounting a defense – and would not do so if she could for fear of hurting the student further.

Or it could be that the boy confused an offer of pure friendship with one of love. There are rules against fraternization between teachers and students to prevent this very thing from happening. Perhaps she broke the fraternization rule with devastating consequences. The results would have been the same, guilt and self-loathing.

So now she has retreated to the park. The rain providing both a gentle backdrop of noise and isolation. The grey water and sky reflecting the greyness of her life. Then along comes another boy, this one unattached. This one not so vulnerable. This one driven by a dream that won’t be denied.

It takes a lot of reflection to try to piece together a possible set of motivations. Subtle clues, soft hints and not so obvious coincidences. God, Shinkai is so good at implying a big story with a hand full of suggestions!

Yukino is no child predator.  She has become a child herself. To use the analogy that she coins, she has lost her ability to walk,  (psychologically) yet is at an age where she ought to be running and dancing. Takao isn’t looking for Mrs. Robinson. He is just a boy too mature for his age, a boy who left childhood too early. You see the two developing under that shelter, growing in trust and friendship, treating each other as equals.

You also learn how insanely sensual a foot can be. A foot elevated to the level of belonging on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A foot to be touched and caressed and have a fitting altar made to hold it.

 

 

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While we are here, let’s look at another brilliant technique used here. Shinkai has a masterful sense of focus. The focus may shift, bringing one subject to your attention as the other subsides. Foreground and background both are often out of focus as one would expect in a lens with a large aperture, a lens one would use in low light. Even on a shot of rain falling on flat water, the sharpness may be greater on the center band.

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Things happen. Yukino has reached a conclusion she was incapable of before. She will quit her job (she was skipping school as much as he was to avoid stress) and return to her hometown to seek employment there. She describes Takao to her ex-husband on the phone as an elderly lady she met in the park who is helping her recover. She has grown away from being that beer and chocolate lady.

Takao sees her in school on her last day as the female students who loved her ask her not to go. Up until now, he had never even seen her at school or asked her name. Now he has learned her identity, her employment and soon the background of her problem. He confronts the girl who started the rumor, delivers a well-deserved slap in her face, and gets pummeled for it. I suspect he felt it was a fair trade.

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The next day we see him on the way to the park to meet her again, face plastered with band-aids. The tanka finally comes into play here. Remember that early on she had given him a tanka? The tanka had a reply and he knows it now. He delivers it.

A faint clap of thunder,
Clouded skies,
Perhaps rain will come.
If so, will you stay here with me?

A faint clap of thunder,
Even if rain comes or not,
I will stay here,
Together with you.

Is that romance? Or is it friendship thru rain and shine? I interpret it to mean she is asking for his help in adversity. By seeking the answer he has shown that he is genuine and had depth. The answer is that he is her friend at all times, not just in gloom but in sun as well. Love is implicit in it all but whether Eros or Agape or Philos, Romantic or Platonic, is left to one’s imagination.  This relationship was started and the tanka was offered back at the beginning of the relationship and at the depth of her depression. She was drowning and he was a floating log to cling too. She is no longer drowning and can begin to walk again.  Takao answered the tanka with his actions long before discovering the words.

Think of the classic rock song, Stand by Me.

I believe she is focusing on the love of friendship (Philos) in a Platonic sense. She may be deluding herself a bit and the truth is possibly a bit closer to the romantic end of the spectrum. Regardless, it is real. He, on the other hand, is clearly thinking romance. A convenient storm strikes, wind lightning and thunder emphasizing the emotional storm about to take place.  They head to her apartment to dry.

He cooks for her. She enjoys the food. They are taking pleasure in each other’s company for that is what both friends and lovers do. She reveals that she is moving back to her hometown. Then he drops the L-bomb.

Takao states that he is falling in love with her.

Yukino is nonplussed and reddens, then sweetly mentions that she is not Yukino-chan to him but Miss Yukino. She has decided to permanently leave for her hometown in a week. Takao suddenly leaves her apartment. It takes her a minute to realize what she was about to lose, not just another student but someone she loves. She desperately runs after him, slipping and falling along the way down the exterior staircase in the rain. Eventually, she catches up to him on a landing

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More rain…

Takao is angry with her, feeling she had led him on. She knew from the start he was a student at her school. Why hadn’t she mentioned it up front rather than going through months of ever closer relationship? Yukino embraces him, says that the time they spent in the park had saved her and both end up weeping.

Takao passes his exams, but just barely. We see him going to the park when the rain has turned to snow and where she will no longer be visiting. He reads a letter written to him by Yukino and sets a pair of shoes he made for her on the bench next to him. His final words are not subbed in the version I saw but they are:

“I now think that I was learning how to walk then, as well. One day, once I’m able to walk a far, far greater distance, I’ll come for you.”

We then see Yukino, teaching in her new classroom and thinking about the boy who saved her as the sun breaks through the sky.

2 thoughts on “Kotonoha no Niwa: The Most Beautiful Anime Ever Created

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