Kotonoha no Niwa, or The Garden of Words, is Makoto Shinkai’s newest film. Shinkai always seems to weave in the theme of distance and its effects on love in his stories. Many people like to focus on the romantic aspects but I think to truly appreciate his works, one must consider the overall theme and message that he is trying to convey. While I can objectively say his stories are generally good but nothing special, I do consider his themes to deliver some very powerful and meaningful messages that no other anime does. As such, while I do not have issues if people don’t enjoy his films, I can’t help but get upset when people sum up his stories as “bittersweet romance.” When I read the description for this film, I was incredibly excited because he was tackling a theme that is so readily ignored, or rather, unrealized, by society.
He [Shinkai] said that this is the first time he is making a “love” story — in the traditional Japanese meaning of the word. At one time, “love” was written as “lonely sadness” (koi). Moreover, according to Shinkai, the modern concept of “love” (ai) was imported from the West. While Kotonoha no Niwa is set in the modern era, it will be about koi in the original meaning — of longing for someone in solitude.
Shinkai specifically stated he would be writing a story about lonely sadness as opposed to the Western concept of love but somehow everyone ignored what this could potentially mean and interpreted it as “another love story.” To begin with, I am of the opinion that Shinkai has never meant to write love stories so much as they are simply the only feasible genre to efficiently translate his messages. But for the original meaning of love, that of lonely sadness, there is no romance.
Kotonoha no Niwa is a fairly short film, which relieved me. Children Who Chase Lost Voices was not bad, per se, but for Shinkai who has always placed messages above plot, I felt it deviated too much from his strengths and resulted in something much worse than he is capable of simply due to trying to approach his storytelling from a plot-centered angle. I feel his shorter films such as 5 cm/s and Voices of a Distant Star used all the time that was needed to portray his stories. Anyway, the story begins with the male protagonist, Takao, a 15 year old student, skipping school on a rainy day to visit a park and work on his shoe designs, as he dreams of becoming a shoe maker. There, he meets a mysterious woman skipping work, drinking beer, and eating chocolate. It is a chance meeting and aside from an equally mysterious tanka line she recites to him, there is nothing else to say. Takao skips first period of class every morning it rains. And each time, he meets her there. He talks to her about his life and dreams, and she listens. She does not even tell him her name. These days of simple meetings and we see very small glimpses into their lives. Takao’s family is not exactly picture perfect but it wouldn’t be right to be called dysfunctional either. The woman seems to have her own circumstances of discomfort but we hardly learn much. She simply tells him that one day she had trouble walking on her own. And then the rainy days end.
When Takao returns to school from summer break, he runs into none other than a literature teacher Yukino, the woman he’s been meeting. He learns she’s been bullied by her students for a rather childish reason and gets into a fight over it. He meets her at the park once again, they get caught in a large rainstorm, and they go to her apartment to dry off and eat. They both describe this time as the happiest time of their lives and Takao confesses his love to her. She dismisses it, saying how she is moving soon, and he abruptly leaves. After some reminiscence, she runs out, chases after him, listens to his outburst of anger, and then hugs him, saying how he saved her. At the very end, we see a letter she has written him, the beautiful shoes he made for her, and a single line saying how he will eventually go meet her once he can walk farther on his own.
First of all, I’d just like to say the rain in this movie was ridiculously beautiful, along with the rest of the god tier animation. As expected of Shinkai. While I was initially disappointed at the lack of Tenmon’s music, I found the piano pieces fit the scenery of rain very well. That aside, it’s a romantic tale, right? I mean, they even have the same seiyuu duo as one of my favorite romances Bungaku Shoujo. At a simple glance, it really is just that. However, what Shinkai is trying to convey here is something completely different. I will admit that Shinkai did a relatively poor job portraying the underlying thoughts and emotions of the characters; however, because he specifically said what the theme of the story was, I found myself picking up on smaller details I otherwise would have missed.
To truly understand this film, one needs to understand what is actually meant by “lonely sadness,” longing for someone in solitude. At face value, it is redundantly a sadness brought about by being lonely, so obviously the love is for whoever cures that loneliness. However, it is so much deeper and basic than that. People naturally crave companionship with others. We yearn for connections to people in any way possible. We want our existences to be recognized by others. It is often said the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. To be loved or hated, both is to have your existence recognized, but for others to treat you with apathy is equivalent to being ignored. Superficial connections with people who speak with you when it suits them or those who are kind for the sake of being kind are irrelevant. For a person who lacks connections to others except for ones such as these, this is the origin of lonely sadness. The most important thing is to realize such a person does have relationships but not a single one goes anywhere. Similar to how I described 5 cm/s, except rather than a hindered relationship, this is a problem that expands to every relationship. It is the feeling that you are alone and connected to no one despite being surrounded by people that creates the deep, painful scar of lonely sadness.
A surprise to me was that both characters in the film suffered from this. First, there is Yukino, who describes herself as “before I knew it, I was unable to walk properly.” What she means is one day she realized she had no real connections to people. She looked back at what she once perceived as happy times and realized, even then, there was no one truly a part of her life. The reason she skips work every day is partly because of the reasons described in the film but at a deeper level, it is because she no longer sees meaning or happiness in it if there is no one there she is connected to. She describes her ex as someone who ignored her and then treated her with kindness after the incident occurred. It was not that he was a bad person but simply that he only saw in her what society saw: first a woman who was doing fine and then someone who was hurt enough to stop going to work. Yukino’s line about him is a very key insight into how she viewed her current relationships. She longs for someone who will talk to her from the heart rather than the surface. She is loved by many of her students and she responds in turn, but none of them are able to give her the companionship she wants, or rather, needs.
Takao gives her what she needs but it is not romance. The very foundation of human desires is companionship, not romance. Romance is something born out of companionship, but to lack any form of relationship in the first place does not allow for such feelings to be made. What he does is simple, unremarkable, even. All he does is talk to her about his life. But by doing so, he is exposing his heart to her, something no one had ever done before. He tells her of his dreams, which he never revealed to anyone else. It is a two-way process. By opening up his heart to her, she for once feels connected to a person, and so does he. She is someone who lost the ability to walk when realizing her lack of relationships. And that is what she means when she says he saved her. He saved her from a dark pit of hopelessness and lonely sadness, of lacking any form of connection to a person. When she says it, there is no romance in her words, only pure, raw love born solely out of thankfulness.
However, Takao is still too young to understand the reality of his situation. While he suffers from the same kind of lonely sadness, he has yet to realize it. It is shown how he has no real connection to his family. He is on good terms with his brother but his brother does not understand how dedicated his shoemaking hobby is and chalks it up as a teenager’s whim. He has friends in school but it’s not a place he looks forward to and is willing to skip without losing out on time with friends, or rather, acquaintances. Most importantly, he is unaware of the rumors surrounding Yukino because of his lack of relationships with his schoolmates despite everyone else knowing. He does not believe his life is lacking in companionship, but as he opens up to Yukino, he begins to feel something he never has before. He (and apparently every viewer) mistakes this for romantic love; it is love, but not romantic. The way he opens his heart to her and she listens intently and without judgment is the first real, meaningful human connection he has ever had. It is love, but it not romantic; it is love born from his lonely sadness. For both of them, it is a feeling that satisfies a human desire on the deepest, most fundamental level for companionship. That said, romantic love could potentially bloom from such feelings, but that is not what the story is about. At the very end, when he says he will meet her, that is not out of romance As two people who suffered from lacking human relations, the day they are both able to walk forward in their relationships with others is when they can meet without needing to cling to each other. If they had stayed together, they would have merely been two people licking each other’s wounds and failed to grow as people. They would have a connection to each other but no one else. Instead, they maintain their much needed relationship through letters but walk their separate ways to build relationships with others and grow as people.
The age difference of 12 years is an important factor for two reasons. Firstly is a reason I previously described: the juxtaposition where Yukino is old enough to realize the meaning behind her sadness and lack of relationships while Takao is too young to understand what his problem was. It was not until after his meeting and parting with Yukino that he realized he too was learning to walk, learning to make true relationships with others. It takes time and experiences to realize the problem. If you have never experienced a relationship with anyone, you may not know what you are missing, and as a result, you naturally assume what you currently have is normal. The second reason is that this is not a message that romantic love can overcome age but more broadly that love can overcome age. To love a person, not romantically, does not have a limit on the age gap. The 12 years did not matter to two people who connected their hearts. Yukino describes herself as someone who was still 15 on the inside. What this can be viewed as is her relationships with others are as superficial as that of a 15 year old. People do not need to be experienced in relationships with others or not to connect. Neither of these two understood how to or what it meant to have companionship between their hearts. Regardless of their age difference, they connected, and when it happened, it was the happiest time of their lives. Their love for each other is real, but it is a love far more fundamental and basic than romance. The feeling of being connected to someone was a first, and it was the first time they had fulfillment of their most basic needs.
One final topic I will mention in briefing is the symbolism. I’m not a fan of analyzing symbolism but I think Shinkai rarely adds things without reason. The most blatant recurring symbol in this movie is the rain. I think it’s pretty obvious the rain is a reflection of their lonely states, clearing at the end when they embrace and let their tears flow (although Shinkai has said the rain represents love in that you cannot stop it). The tanka which Yukino first recites to Takao and the eventual response is certainly romantic, but in this context, it is a simple plea searching for someone to stay by her side and connect. The reference to rain parallels its symbolism, where even if it does not rain (even when she is no longer lonely), will he stay by her side? Going back, it is a question that asks for his intentions, as to whether he is a person who is being kind due to her circumstances or not. That said, Japanese poems tend to be far deeper and more complex than the English language can even begin to do justice, so I’m sure there is more. Thirdly, Takao chooses to make shoes for Yukino. The claim is that he wants to help her walk; however, the reality is that doing so allowed him to walk as well. His dream of becoming a shoemaker became one step closer to reality, and it was she who inspired it. Of course, at the same time, his passion struck a chord with her and also gave her inspiration to continue walking. Once again, his actions work to help them both because the shoes are a representation of his innermost desires and because creating shoes opened up his heart and allowed them to connect. Finally, the title: Garden of Words. What did he and Yukino do to connect? They talked. The connection between them is made simply through words from their hearts. They did not need anything fancy or actions but only words to form the love between them.
People need companionship. Even one relationship can be enough to satisfy the need. Those who lack it cannot help but feel sad and lonely, but the emotions are leagues above what the average person thinks of. To be surrounded by friends and family, or even a lover, yet not feel connected to a single person produces an incredible raw feeling of lonely sadness. That feeling will never disappear until a relationship is finally made, and when it happens, it is without a doubt the happiness time of their lives. It is the deprivation of a fundamental need. Takao and Yukari happened upon each other by chance. They went to the park to avoid their problems with other people but that only served to worsen the issue. It is only when they go back to teaching and schooling that they can learn to walk again. But the thing that allowed them to go back was each other. It is only because they finally gained a relationship that they could begin to walk forward in life.
Lonely sadness is a state of solitude that deprives people of the most basic need for companionship. To call Garden of Words a simple romance story is to undermine the entire theme, cast away the significance of the message, and belittle the pain of those it is meant to depict. Lonely sadness is a painful reality for those who long for someone in solitude, but at the same time, it gives the opportunity to birth the purest form of love. Not romantic love or platonic love. “Koi” – in its original meaning – is love of lonely sadness that understands the lowest points of human relationships but also appreciates the importance of relationships more than any other. It revels in the simplicity of connecting with someone and can result in the most beautiful of friendships, or romances. It showers others with love in its rawest form, that of simple companionship with another and connected hearts.
But such love is still between humans and confined to a physical level. The Christian faith believes that humans also crave another kind of companionship: a spiritual one. We are made in the image of God and from the very depths of our souls, we desire a relationship with Him. It is an empty hole that everyone is born with, and everyone tries to fill with worldly desires. It is a problem we cannot recognize on our own, just as Takao did not. We live our lives wanting to fill “something” but nothing succeeds. It is only when we enter into a relationship with God that the craving finally ceases. God’s love for us is beyond anything we can even comprehend, but He fills our loneliness, sadness, and all other emotions with His boundless love. I think a good comparison would be where we are Takao and God is Yukino. Yukino was always at the same place at the park, and at some point, always waiting for him. It was Takao who would have to make the choice to meet her there. In the same way, we have are the ones who have to go to God, even if He is always there waiting. If we go to Him and open our hearts the same way Takao opened his to Yukino, then He will reciprocate that love. Whether we know it or not, God is always waiting for us to make the decision to go to Him, and when we do, we can build a relationship with Him unlike anything else we have experienced before.