Most relationships we’ll have in life are temporary—impermanent and fleeting. We’re separated from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues by life changes, job offers, tragedy, and barriers that we sometimes raise ourselves. Makoto Shinkai, the famed animator, explores the ideas of distance and separation in all of his films, usually with a trace of sadness if not a full-on barrage. In 5 cm per Second and my favorite, Voices of a Distance Star, he shows that sometimes distance cannot be overcome, and that sometimes it can even crush us. But there are other times, as Shinkai reminds us in his beautiful short film, Garden of Words, where the moment together is so significant that no amount of distance can diminish what it means to us (SPOILERS AHEAD).
The distance for high school student, Takao, and the older Yukari are many. They first meet on a rainy morning in Shinjuku Gyo-en, a beautiful park in the midst of bustling Tokyo. He is an aspiring shoemaker and she is a young working adult, though her presence at the garden (while drinking beer and eating chocolate) paint her as far more irresponsible than her calm demeanor portrays. Whenever it rains, the two repeat the same ritual, meeting at the same spot and sitting near each other, often in silence. Once the rainy season ends, the two are separated, with the basis for their meetings no longer occurring. But fate intertwines the two, with Takao later discovering that Yukari was a teacher at his school. She was a victim of bullying, and slowly stopped coming in to work.
After rediscovering one another, they try to continue their connection, but the obstacles are many: their relationship remains undefined and the distance between their live is vast (she is a teacher and he is a student; she is an adult and he is an adolescent; she has a number of adult life challenges and his challenges are with growing up and learning who he is). Finally, physical distance also separates the two, as Yukari moves away from Tokyo, returning to her home.
It feels like another sad Shinkai ending, but in this movie, there’s something more. Yukari and Takao are not just two people separated by fate, as it were—there’s something deeper in their relationship than forbidden romance or anything of that sort. The two absolutely needed each other in this literal season of their lives. He was encouraged by her interest in him and his dream of making shoes, and her story reveal (and his subsequent actions) helped him grow up during a time where upheaval at home could have potentially pulled him a different direction. And she needed him to give her support when she was physically and emotionally falling apart, to help restore faith in young people, faith in the world—to regain relationship when she had lost the concept entirely.
As Yukari tearfully remarks, he saved her.
At the conclusion of the story, Takao, narrating, says that he will go to her again one day. It’s an unexpected and unusual bit of optimism from Shinkai, one I’ll gladly take but also suggest as unnecessary and unlikely to culminate in a satisfying end. By then Yukari will be in her thirties; Takao will be a full-fledged adult. And the distance between them may be far greater, figuratively, than it is now.
But that doesn’t mean their love for one another won’t endure.
Relationships sometimes burn brightly for just a season—sometimes for just a couple of weeks, or even for just an hour. Nostalgia and longing can take us by storm sometimes—I’m especially prone to such feelings—but when the sadness casts a pall that overwhelms the time together (with friends, loves, even mere acquaintances), we risk minimizing what was for what might have been, losing what was and is real for what will never be.
Takao and Yukari met each while on a journey, one toward adulthood and one retreating from it. And physically, at a park, they met at point on a map, a critical spot at which their lives could have veered toward any number of directions. And even if they departed, going different ways from that point, their meeting was perhaps more meaningful than a longer journey together could have been.
And it’s the same with us all as we sometimes journey together and sometimes journey apart. The meetings, however brief they may be, should not ultimately be about regret, sadness, or longing—these points of convergence are more than that. They are the times when relationships work to change our hearts and often the very course of our lives. They are moments of love—and that means far more than the distance that follows.