「言の葉の庭」 (Kotonoha no Niwa)
“The Garden of Words”

When it comes to the visual side of anime – or animation – there’s Shinkai Makoto, and everyone else. Two different categories, period.

I spent a day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden this past Spring, during Sakura season. In fact I’ve gone their twice over the years and ironically, it was raining on both days. It was indeed very beautiful in the rain, but here’s the truly remarkable thing: the garden as depicted by Shinkai feels more real to me than the place I visited and saw with my own eyes. This isn’t a weak attempt at being clever, or hyperbole – it’s the absolute truth. And there’s perhaps no greater compliment I can pay to Shinkai-sensei’s gifts as an artist than that.

There are times when watching a Shinkai film where I wonder how it’s even possible that a human being can create animation of such surpassing beauty, and Kotonoha no Niwa is certainly no exception. There are images in Byousoku 5 Centimeter that remain peerless for me, and as a whole that remains my favorite Shinkai film. But Garden of Words is, on balance, probably the most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen. In terms of background detail, fluid animation, exquisite and seamless use of CGI and sheer style it sets a new standard even for this director.

But you know, all that technical stuff doesn’t really begin to do justice to what Shinkai does. I can never seem to do better than the term that occurred to me after 5 CM to describe his vision: "more real than real". Shinkai has a poet’s soul, and somehow he manages to see the essence of what makes something beautiful and capture it with art and animation that’s realistic, but transcends simple realism. The usual Shinkai standards are here: trains, birds, snow. There are also the loveliest character designs of his career, and a beautiful canvas upon which to paint in Shinjuku Gyoen. But the most stunning moments for me in Kotonoha no Niwa are when Shinkai captures the heartbreaking beauty of the mundane as only he can. Dust motes in a beam of sunlight. Flakes of chalk falling to the floor of a classroom. Drips of rain in a puddle, a water strider on a pond. No one in my experience has ever been able to find the exceptional in the ordinary the way Shinkai can, and I thank my lucky stars every day that he chose anime as the outlet to express his vision.

With a Shinkai movie, there’s always the question of whether the story will live up to the visual artistry. As I said earlier, to me Shinkai-sensei is a poet, and as such I think he works best working with spare, simple plots that express his keen sense of human emotion. I enjoyed Hoshi o Ou Kodomo very much, and I think it’s criticized more than it deserves to be. But that said, it’s easily Shinkai’s most prosaic work. It’s burdened with too much conventional plot and it’s too long, and neither of those elements play into Shinkai’s strengths. It feels too transparently like Shinkai’s attempt to make a Ghibli film, and Ghibli has already pretty much written the book on how to do that.

With Garden of Words, Shinkai has returned to his comfort zone, and the results are predictably impressive. As with Byousoku 5 CM this is a short film – barely 45 minutes – and an even simpler one in terms of plot. Shinkai has even used a poem as the device that ties the film together, a tanka that expresses much about the state of mind of the two leads:

A faint clap of thunder

Clouded skies, perhaps rain comes

Will you stay here with me?

This is the quote that Yukino Yukari (Kana Hanazawa) reads to young Akazuki Takao (Irino Miyu) on the morning of their first meeting in a gazebo at the old Imperial Garden. Takao is 15; Yukari, we later learn, is 27. The boy is sure he’s seen the woman somewhere before, but can’t say where. She’s drinking beer and eating chocolate, much to his horror. They don’t talk much – he sketches, surreptitiously staring at her from time to time, and she stares out at the pond in the rain, the Taiwan Pavilion an imposing sight on the far shore.

These scenes under the gazebo form the heart of this small, simple film. Akazuki is an odd sort, a daydreamer who loathes "that childish place" he’s required to attend and skips out every morning it rains to go to the garden. Akazuki’s dream is no ordinary one either – to make shoes for a living. As for Yukino-san it’s only clear that she’s troubled, running from something – she tells the boy she’s playing hooky from an office but there are obvious signs that she’s been suffering deeply. Eventually the beer turns into coffee, and the silence turns into quiet, friendly conversation as the boy inevitably falls in love with the woman.

If you’ve seen Shinkai’s films you’ve been down this emotional road before, and have some idea where it leads. I wouldn’t say Kotonoha no Niwa breaks any new ground for him, especially, and it lacks the incredible emotional resonance of the "Cherry Blossom" chapter from 5 CM Per Second – the longing so intense and pure that you felt it in every cell in your body. But it’s effective nonetheless, because this is a story Shinkai is temperamentally and stylistically suited to tell. While there are moments of intensity the tone of the film is mostly subdued and reflective, and it’s clear that Shinkai is stating his belief that two souls can connect even if the calendar makes it inconvenient for them to do so. It never seems anything other than natural that this boy – an old soul if ever one lived – should come to love a woman 12 years his elder, or that she should come to love him, even if circumstances (their age and the fact that, as it turns out, she was a teacher at his school) conspire against them.

I do miss the work of the supremely talented Tenmon with the music, though Kashiwa Daisuke does deliver a suitably mellow and reflective soundtrack. As with Hoshi o Ou Kodomo Shinkai has chosen to go with big-name seiyuu for the leads here, a departure from his philosophy earlier in his career. Hanazawa does quite well with the wounded, too-kind Yukino, wandering aimlessly through the wreckage of her life with only Akazuki-kun to cling to – we never forget whose voice it is we’re hearing, but she’s thankfully quite understated by her usual standard. It seems almost unnecessary to say that Miyu is superb – no seiyuu in anime handles quiet scenes of emotional depth and complexity better than he does. Miyu can be theatrical when he needs to be but his true mastery is in doing more with less, and in finding the emotional heart of the characters he plays. In that sense, he’s ideally suited to be Shinkai’s muse.

The emotional climax of the film comes on a day when the two haven’t seen each other for many weeks – the rainy season is over, and Takao hasn’t visited the park (well aware, perhaps, of how complicated things will become if he follows his heart). He decides to visit on a sunny day, desperate to see Yukino again, and as the day fittingly turns to spectacular rain delivers to her the answering verses of her tanka:

A faint clap of thunder

Even if the rain comes not,

I will stay here, together with you

Endings with Shinkai are always a matter of some consternation with his fans, it seems. There’s a sense of hope in this one, and it’s important that you watch the short scene after the credits to understand just where the film leaves Takao as a character. Practicalities are never glossed over in a Shinkai story – we’re a part of the world we live in, and our lives are affected by factors over which we have little control. But more so than with Byousoku 5 Centimeter there’s a sense here that the characters have taken a measure of control over their lives and come to understand what’s truly important to them. As with all of Shinkai-sensei’s films there’s less a feeling that we’ve reached the end of the characters’ stories but rather stopped between chapters, and that the story will continue once the cameras are turned off. In the case of Kotonoha no Niwa, those next chapters seem more hopeful than we’re used to – the feeling is that a world of possibilities exists for Takao, and that his life is only beginning.


ED Sequence

ED: 「Rain」 by (Hata Motohiro)


  1. The visuals are simply mind blowing, the small flourishes such as the projection the rain’s shadow on to a wall and the ripples the rain makes all add to create a visual feast. I have to agree with Enzo on the visuals, Shinkai shows that animation is not just a poor man’s live action film, a failed, weak or poor quality attempt at reality; in contrast his films show better than any other director’s that animation can surpass and exceed the limits of reality.

  2. Visuals are impressive as expected
    but i overestimated it to surpass 5cm/sec.
    maybe because i cant relate to it?
    or the movie needs to be long for character development and such.

    1. I can’t relate to the film either but I have led (still leading) a pretty dull, non-dramatic and normal life.

      However, I’m sure this film was certainly powerful to those who can relate to it in anyway. For those like me who can’t relate, at least we can sit back and feast our eyes on the marvel and splendor that is Kotonoha No Niwa.

    1. Probably is the most positive of his works this decade, though I did recently finish the manga for 5cm and the ending of that puts a little more hope in the viewer than the movie.

  3. much like 5cm per sec shinkai makoto once again managed to make both my eyes and soul bask in the glory of his works. Damn this was beautifully made and appealing both visual and story wise.

  4. While I’ve always loved Makoto’s works for the sheer artistry, I’ve always had a problem with the pacing of his endings–they always seem rushed and too little focus is placed on them. Hoshi Kodomo was a big offender, rushing its ending after building up such a beautiful and deep world.

    I always thought that Makoto would benefit from more time allocated to his movies, but this 40 minute picture definitely is a case against that. He’s definitely improved his pacing this time with the ending, giving a more fulfilling and woven feel to the conclusion of his characters. It sure didn’t feel like 40 minutes, and I am glad that the constraint on time produced such a concise work!

    Now, next podcast, we’ll definitely have a discussion of our two budding directors, Mamoru and Shinkai. I’m excited :3

  5. Seriously I didnt think the blu-ray would come out so fast. This was just in the theaters a month or 2 ago! I was thinking end of the year at the earliest!

    Im a great fan of all his works, from his sci-fi ones to 5cm per second. I also liked Hoshi wo ou kodomo too despite the Ghibili vibes. Such a beautiful film as always. I like heart pinching romances XD

    Will you review Nerawareta Gakuen as well?

  6. The movie was exquisitely beautifully; I stared in awe at the entire film, enamored ny how shinkai could make beautiful animation look so easy (im sure it was actually quite difficult to make it all come together technically speaking). My nitpick with this movie is that, the drama of the story did not match the visual quality. I wasnt that emotionally invested in the narrative. Im not sure if it had something to do with the short run time not getting me invested in the story and the characters or maybe it was the simplicity of the drama that didnt quite do it for me. Simple can actually be quite impactful but in this case i didnt feel it; that’s not to say that the movie was void of emotional impact as i was still somewhat emotionally connected to the story. Perhaps i was expecting too much; still a good movie nevertheless.

  7. Beautiful movie. The only disappointment that I had with it was the fact that it wasnt longer than some of his other movies. Nah, I think when this movie comes out and if a book of his background art(<maybe on day) come out I will be throwing my money at it demanding to purchase them. T^T (tears of joy)

    1. I think the words you are looking for here are “Shut up and take my money”.

      This is the first work of Shinkai Makoto I’ve seen and I must say, I’m one impressed bear. He can really make the world seem that much more beautiful.

  8. as someone one like older women(not10year apart 0kay?) myself and I recently watch a Thai movie call “30 years old so great” about a 23 man who love 31 ys women , they both have different circumstance and i love the idea of how age come to play a great factor , that shoe scene and hug scene = so good ! too bad it’s short I only need 5 more minutes to gave super happy ending with time skip method. I personally hate bad ending and tragedy that’s why this is better than 5cm at least for my taste. ^-^

  9. Just… this film… just oh gawd. I am just at a lost for words.

    This film, despite being 2D animated with 3D cgi thrown in, shows a masterful understanding in nearly all fields of digital media and photography. Characters were a prime example of consistent and defined anatomy in 2D animation. I absolutely adored the continual attention paid to reflection, refraction, transparency and translucency which are of a masterful photographer’s degree. Also the SFX were really well done, capturing the ambiance of the garden and immersing the viewer in not just visuals, but sound as well. Finally, how they combined the medias of 2D frame animation, 3D and simulated effects was simply superb. Not once did I ever feel that the elements were out of place.

    All I can say is, there is not a single animation I can think of that comes close to this visual masterpiece.

  10. Lol wat? Can someone confirm but apparently this film was shown in Australia first, before Japan? If so, can someone give reasoning? I live in Australia and we aren’t big on the digital media industry altogether, let alone anime…

    1. Yep, the film premiered at the Gold Coast Film Festival in Australia. As to reasoning, here’s a snippet from an interview I found a while back:

      “The Gold Coast Film Festival is one of the events that played my 5 Centimeters Per Second movie a couple of years ago, which also received an award. I have wanted to come to the Gold Coast but was always in midst of production, so I was never able to come. But this time it was after I had finished my productions for the new film and I was invited to come here, so I took the chance to come.

      This film is really set in a setting that is completely different from Australia. It is set in Japan, in the rainy season with Japanese gardens as the scenery and even the words it is about rallying songs, really old words that are really historical even in Japanese culture. So it is really different and I wanted to see what happens in Australia as well as to how it is taken in here.”

      Source: Link to full interview

  11. This looks beautiful. Thank you for sharing the screencaps.
    I don’t want to appear unappreciative, but there’s something wrong with the large versions of 13-16. They never open, and I would so love to use the train platform image as a desktop.

  12. Am I the only one who dislike Takao?
    One of the problem with Shinkai’s film is that the characters’s monologue is so full of philosophy not suit for their age but their actions later is so immature to the extent of conflict. The same with Takao’s rant at the end of the film which makes it less enjoyable.

    I’ll watch it again at the cinema just for the scenery porn and Shinkai’s meeting.

  13. That was beautiful, probably one of the best animated films I have ever watched. Loved the song that closed out the movie, it was very fitting and brought a tear to my eye.

  14. I remember seeing the trailer for this movie , thinking “I will watch this when it comes out”…then forgetting completely about it.
    Then yesterday , I saw this post , skimmed it briefly , and went to watch it. I absolutely loved it-it was the type of thing that makes my heart glad that such things exist

  15. Having HanaKana in this sort of role, it’s different to hearing her in her usual moeness, but she did an excellent job and exceeded my expectations. And I’ll reiterate Enzo’s point about Irino Miyu (WOW), he brought out the Akizuki’s character perfectly, and that climax scene in the rain – really pulls at the heart strings. Kudos to the two seiyuus for pulling it off so well in this film.

  16. After reading this post by Enzo, I was compelled to watch this movie because I am a huge fan of Makoto Shinkai’s work. The movie left me in such an emotional state that I had to write about it. I wrote a little more than 1,500 words on my deepest feelings and thoughts that this movie had stirred up within me. It is much too long for a comments section, but I would like to continue to discuss this here in randomc comments section after any of you take the time to read my thoughts. This may not be allowed, so if I’m breaking any rules here make sure to inform me. I’m just overly excited about this anime, and I am desperate to talk about it with someone since I don’t have any real life friends who are into this sort of thing. Anime is truly an immersive experience for me. I think I’m helplessly addicted to it. http://thenaivepanda.tumblr.com/post/52301393951/my-thoughts-on-kotonoha-no-niwa-the-garden-of-words

  17. DAT FEET…how could you not worship those toes…

    on another note, she certainly doesn’t sound like a 27 year-old…
    the bitch-slap was very gratifying for me…
    they’d make a good couple despite the 12 year age gap…
    the bgm piano was relentless…

  18. Makoto Shinkai’s works ought to be used to promote Japan’s tourism industry (not that it’s not good or anything). This film makes me want to visit Japan even more!

  19. God, any one of the background stills from this movie wouldn’t look out of place in a museum.
    Makoto Shinkai always manages to take the mundane and make it heartbreakingly beautiful. Watching these movies always makes me wonder why I can’t see true beauty in the everyday and it saddens me because I’ll never be able to capture life in such an exquisite manner.

  20. I have to be honest and say that I was slightly underwhelmed when I finished this; nevertheless the graphics and audio quality is superb. I’m glad Shinkai is doing less cuts between scenic shots; there’s a more fluid transition between close-ups and wide-shots and pans. He does a superb simulation of camera movement, with varying focus points (and the great treatment of dust motes, as you’ve mentioned).

    There’s one thing I really liked about 5cm/sec, and that’s the tertiary character Kanae Sumida. She really does complete the essence of bittersweetness so pivotal in all his stories of unrequited love, persistence, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. There’s a saying that the most painful relationship is the one that never started. I wish his future films will explore that more. The Garden of Words was very straightforward: two lovers trying to overlook the inappropriateness of their relationship bc of the age-gap. To me, that’s not enough of an obstacle to overcome. I want more development on Yukino-san. Is there something wrong with her sense of smell/taste? Why was she bullied? What were her students doing when she was playing hooky?

  21. I’m pretty much a noob when it comes to anime movies in – well,more like I keep telling myself I’ll be trying some but never got to do it so I don’t even know if some of ’em will be my cup of tea – so this is the 1st anime movie I watched since the Garden of Sinners ones and all I can say is….woah,I guess I’ve been missing out?I’m also a complete noob with Shinkai Makoto’s works but I’m gonna change that if I can expect something similar to this in his other works.I’ll probably start with the well-known Byousoku 5 Centimeter somewhere in the next few days.

    As for Garden of Words itself,besides the jaw-dropping visuals it was right up my alley with it’s plot as well(I’m a sucker for usually ignored “christmas cakes” :P).I kind of went like “Damn,I want a full 1 cour anime of this!”but it might be best as it is,not to mention that anything less than Shinkai’s visuals would inevitably lower my opinion of it.

    A most wonderfull review as well Enzo.It,along with Garden of Words itself,got me into looking out for anime movies(and eventually catching up to whatever good ones I’ve been missing on…).

    Also this(put in spoiler tags because it might ruin the mood):
    Show Spoiler ▼

    I couldn’t help myself ><

  22. Only one word comes up to my mind after watching this movie ‘BRILLANT’. It’s actually one of those movie that can keep you speechless for hours. If you liked Byousoku 5 Centimeter, you’ll probably like Kotonoha no Niwa as well. The visuals are gorgeous, the story touching. I’m still amazed by the very unique way Shinkai can portray human emotions !

    Inthasot Alex
  23. As usual on Shinkai-related subjects, I completely agree with you Enzo. Kotonoha didn’t hit me like The Chosen Cherry Blossoms did (the latter ripped my heart out), but it’s still a magnificent vignette of two people meeting, influencing each others lifes, and moving forward. With a beautiful dose of symbolism added.

    The only thing I worry about is that when I’ll visit Tokyo, it won’t be as gorgeous and radiant as Shinkai’s hyper-real version. Also, I need a bigger TV.

  24. Been a fan of Shinkai’s works for years. At the end of this month I will be actually going to Japan for the first time, and I’ve decided that I want to go visit the exact same spot the two characters here met in Gyoen National Park, but I can’t seem to find that structure on maps.

  25. Stunning animation and art, brilliant music and voice acting, “simple” but nuanced story with good pacing, likeable and believable characters (if flat at times). All in all, a great short movie and a credit to the genre. Less of the fantasy and more of this please!

    J Jay
    1. As this is the only Makoto Shinkai work I’ve watched , I can’t answer the question in terms of him , but maybe because -this sounds strange but – potrayals of distance can be more subtle than portrayals of deaths. Sometimes tragedies are more powerful when they are between the line rather than blatant and in your face.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *