Kotonoha no Niwa or The Garden of Words is another one of Makoto Shinkai’s films exploring the plot element of love between star crossed lovers. The film is short in length running just short of 45 minutes similar in screen time to Hotarubi no Mori e. While the two share similarities and length and genre, their approaches on the depiction of love between star crossed lovers are different. While Hotarubi no Mori e focuses on a relationship over a long period of time (as discussed in a previous review), Shinkai’s Kotonoha no Niwa depicts the formation of a short-lived love over the course of a few months.
In line with his previous works like 5 Centimeters Per Second and his latter work Kimi no na wa., Shinkai puts a premium on using visuals to symbolize different aspects of his films and his characters. The film opens with rain, marking the beginning of a prolonged season of rainfall as well as the beginning of the relationship between the two protagonists of the film, Yukari Yukino and Takao Akizuki. The rain serves as the bridge that connects the two characters bringing them to their place of meeting, a garden within the city. Over the course of the film, the two find themselves hoping for rainfall so that they may have an excuse to go to the garden and see one another once more.
The garden where they meet also serves a symbol for the two. It is here that Yukino and Akizuki first meet. As their interactions increase, they learn about one another becoming closer through each rainy day. The beauty of the garden in the film is not only in the visual aspect of it but also in the way Shinkai manages to create a space within the city that feels secluded and separated from the world. The separation of the garden from the city represents how the two also learn about one another, free from the labels of society and the roles that would normally be imposed on them. This is further highlighted by how Yukino is introduced drinking beer within the garden which specifically bans drinking within the premises. In a way, it introduces the space as being free of rules from the very beginning.
The garden also serves as Shinkai’s canvas allowing him to display his style to its utmost. The art of The Garden of Words utilizes an increased level of contrast and sharpness that makes this film stand out from his others. Coupled with the distinct color style, he focuses on emphasizing the details of each scene. The film is elevated by the random shots of landscapes and cityscapes which not only serve as examples of his skills but also remind the viewer that the garden that feels detached from society is actually still within the confines of the city. At this time, Kotonoha no Niwa easily secures its spot at the forefront of Shinkai’s works in terms of art and visuals.
The weakness of Kotonoha no Niwa is that it fails to create a feeling of growth between its two mains. Hotarubi no Mori e for instance shows the physical growth of its protagonist and depicts the growth of her relationship over a long period of time in the same time frame that is given to Kotonoha no Niwa. Shinkai’s other works such as 5 Centimeters Per Second and Kimi no na wa. allow for more investment in the protagonists creating a relationship that viewers are more inclined to relate to. I felt that the strength of the relationship of Kotonoha no Niwa’s protagonists was rooted in the fact that they were able to escape society together rather than being rooted in actual familiarity and understanding.
Kotonoha no Niwa is a film that would have benefited from a few more minutes of development which would have added another level of depth to the story. While not perfect, the short film manages to create a lasting impression serving to highlight Shinkai’s ability, particularly his artistic style. Compared to Kimi no na wa., a testament to his mastery of the recurring romantic plot element, Kotonoha no Niwa is a testament to his artistic mastery.