So a while back I mentioned seeing Your Name, which was (or rather still is) a phenomenally popular anime and the most profitable one in Japan ever. Its director, Makoto Shinkai, is being projected to become the next ‘Hayao Miyazaki’. The man currently and indubitably sitting atop the throne of anime stardom. Now, as a lifelong fan of Studio Ghibli and almost all of Miyazaki’s films (he’s not perfect folks, even Miyazaki is gonna have a few duds), I think this kind of super-hype is a bit misleading and not very productive. For one, I feel an artist desires to stand on his or her own work, and not on top of the work of others. No one praises Michelangelo for being ‘the next Da Vinci’ or vice versa and certainly the works of Miyazaki and the works of Shinkai should be venerated and admired separately and not always in contrast to one another. Second, I haven’t seen much of Shinkai’s works, and to place so much emphasis on just one piece seems a bit imprudent. He could legitimately be a master of animation and storytelling or he could just be a one-hit wonder waiting for his 5 minute feature on VH1’s Anime One-Hit Wonders of the 2010s. Hahah.
So last weekend I decided to sit down with a bowl of vanilla ice cream with some cookies and peanut butter and watch Garden of Words. This was an anime drama from 2013, three years before Shinkai would go on to make Your Name. Armed now with two of his works to analyze, I think I can better speak to his own characteristics and qualities and skills as an animator, and while I don’t want it to become the crux of the conversation, draw some parallels between him and Miyazaki as well. Ready?! Let’s go!
On feature length: So first off, I was surprised to find out that the entire anime was no more than 46 minutes long, including the credits. I was a bit thrown off when I first saw that after looking up the movie. My main concern was going to be ‘how can they possibly fit a satisfying story line with enough growth and complexity within such a short time’. I thought maybe I had missed something and it was a serial anime versus a movie, but sure enough it was a stand alone feature. While I won’t go into too much detail about the story or the plot, I will give you a brief synopsis. Takao is a 15 year old high schooler who secretly dreams of becoming a shoemaker. He has a bad habit of skipping his first period classes on rainy days so he can spend his morning in peace in a nearby park, listening to the rain and sketching his shoe designs. One morning he meets a mysterious, beautiful older woman who also seems to find some comfort and solace in the rain. Over the rainy season they consistently spend their mornings together on rainy days and over time find themselves equally looking forward to gray skies and meeting. It is a romantic drama that speaks so close to my heart as it centers around the themes of love and loneliness.
Shinkai said in an interview that the inspiration for Garden of Words was the original, native roots of the Japanese kanji for ‘love’, before it was influenced by Western ideals of romantic love. The native kanji for ‘love’ was written as two characters brought together to mean ‘lonely sadness’. ‘Love’ in the true ancient Japanese sense was more like the chivalric love of Medieval poetry and lore, like the loving longing of Lancelot for Guinevere. It lets Shinkai and the movie focus on love and loneliness not as disparate parts but two sides of the same coin. In this way, ‘love’ doesn’t require the return of affection of the other party. It can be the pure and bittersweet, beautiful longing and yearning for someone or something. I think this is especially inspiring and hopeful for people who have had those feelings of loneliness and/or despair when pining after someone. It lets them view their emotions and feelings as equally valid and legitimate even if their love is not returned, and it portrays loneliness as a natural by-product of love, something to accept and not something to be fixed.
This is a lot to unpack and present in a cohesive and digestible way. And through masterful subtlety (as opposed to overt explicitness) and strong use of motifs, metaphors, and imagery, Shinkai is able to deliver, if maybe a tad bit underwhelmingly, a very deep message about his interpretation of love and loneliness that does present Garden of Words as a complete work. I don’t know if a lesser talent could have done the same with two or even three hours without the soft, gentle hand that Shinkai has when dealing with the subject.
On fate: In East Asian folklore, particularly China and Japan, there is the belief that the gods tie an invisible red cord (oxymoron I know) around those who are destined to meet, fall in love, and end up together. It is a powerful and beautiful metaphor for fate and destiny that is very often used in Asian manga, anime, and films. One of the best
examples for me is the Japanese film Dolls in which two characters go through the entire movie with a red cord wrapped around their waists. Shinkai very clearly heard this story as well, as in both Garden of Words and Your Name, it is a strong presence. In Garden of Words one cannot escape the feeling of inevitability and fate. The rain acts like the red cord that continues to bind and reunite the two characters. In Your Name it is much more apparent, as Taki wears a red braided cord that is later on revealed to have been given to him by Mitsuha early on. I happen to love themes and motifs like this, so I am glad that Shinkai is able to ‘weave’ (HA) it into his stories so masterfully.
On food: One of the first and most important comparisons I think that should be brought up between Miyazaki and Shinkai is on how they treat food in their movies. If you’ve ever seen a Miyazaki film, you will know that food often times plays a pivotal role in immersion and world-creating. Who can forget how delicious something as simple as instant ramen looked in Ponyo, his anime take on The Little Mermaid. Or the almost obscene but absolutely mouth-watering and tempting smorgasbords of food in Spirited Away. Bento boxes eaten in My Neighbor Totoro. Even something as simple as bacon and eggs is elevated to animated perfection in Howl’s Moving Castle.
In comparison, the food in Shinkai’s films are almost always stale and still. They lack the vibrancy, life, and urgency to consume that Miyazaki imparts into his meals. Both Your Name and Garden of Words feature food and/or drink to a certain extent. There is a deep spiritual tie to the sacred sake that Mitsuha’s family makes and brings to offer in the shrine. Though the scenes of them drinking it (and making it) elicit no desire in me. Takao is seemingly a pretty confident if not at least comfortable home chef, and we can see him making lunches for himself and the mysterious woman in Garden of Words. But I don’t feel any hunger or longing to join them at the table.
I think the reason why Shinkai’s food falls so flat is, ironically, it is the one place where he lacks subtlety. If you take a look at how Miyazaki animates his food, it is simplistic. They are not the food itself but the avatars. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details or the nuances. The bacon doesn’t look like bacon, it looks like what we think bacon looks like. It is universally understood. If you look at Takao’s lunch in the picture above, as a non-Japanese person, could you tell that the yellow was an egg omelet? To be perfectly frank, I can’t even differentiate what the brown meat is. Meatballs perhaps? You’ll also notice how all the senses are seemingly engaged in Miyazaki’s meals. The bacon sizzles. The hot ramen steams. You see, hear, and can imagine to smell and taste and feel the food in the room.
On weather and the seasons: Change in Shinkai’s work often comes from nature, rather than from the people themselves. Garden of Words lives mainly through the rainy season and it is the immutable march of time and the changing of the seasons that moves the story and gives it its urgency as well as its context. Part of establishing environment and atmosphere in Shinkai’s work relies heavily on establish what season or what weather we are experiencing. In Garden of Words the rain needs to be present but subdued. In Your Name the weather is a sign of the passing times as Mitsuha and Taki grow together, closer yet ever more distant. Shinkai’s works often spread themselves across a vast time span and without having to stress or draw direct attention to it, we realize it as we watch the characters change their clothing, activities, and outlook. The seasons affect their personalities and mirror their emotions. Or do their emotions mirror the seasons?
On magic realism: Often times you hear fans of Miyazaki’s film express the sentiment ‘oh I wish I could live in [insert anime title here]’. This is of course a testament to the awe-inspiring and fantastical world building skills of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The best way to describe a viewing experience with a Miyazaki film is first he establishes a very real and present world, the world in which we inhabit, and then through some incredibly circumstance or event we are transported into the world in which the majority of the story takes place. What this means then is for as much as Miyazaki develops and fleshes out these worlds (Howl’s castle, the inn in Spirited Away, the forest in Princess Mononoke, the ocean in Ponyo), there is always this clear line, this demarcation, of their world and ours. And we are invited to view and to experience, but never to inhabit. His worlds have clear cut rules and structures as well as forms. I believe part of this is in agenda and beliefs. Miyazaki has not been shy in voicing particular agendas in his films. The Wind Rises, Princess Mononoke, often times he depicts man in conflict with nature, and therefore, uninvited guests into those worlds.
Shinkai has no such ambition or goal as to take on industrialization or deforestation. His worlds are simple and understated, and therefore, even in the most unlikely of circumstances (body switching being one of them), we feel as though this could be part of our world. His characters react very casually, after some initial confusion, to the events of their world. ‘Oh, I go to sleep as a boy and sometimes I’ll wake up as a girl. Imma squeeze boobies.’ This is Shinkai’s simpler version of magical realism. A reality tinged with a hint of magic, versus two worlds living parallel to each other. I am not stating that one is better than the other. Both are able to fully encompass their respective genres and create rich, interwoven tapestries of story. But it is worth bringing up because again, two very different approaches for people to be trying to predict one succeeding the other.
[SPOILER ALERT IN THE FOLLOWING SECTION]
On poetry and tanka: When Takao first meets the mysterious woman (Yukino), she leaves only one clue as to her identity when they part. As she leaves Takao, she says to him
A faint clap of thunder,
Perhaps rain will come.
If so, will you stay here with me?
This is a tanka, a form of Japanese poem similar to a haiku meant to display an entire mood or emotion. In particular, this is a tanka taken from a very famous anthology of classical Japanese poetry from the Man’yoshu collection. The origin and meaning of this strange departure confused Takao, until the film’s climax where it is revealed that Yukino is actually a classical literature teacher at Takao’s school who has been avoiding coming in due to students’ harassment and bullying. It is also another callback to the ‘lonely sadness’ that pervades the entirety of this movie. When Takao realizes who she is, and why she was hiding in the park, he takes it upon himself to act on her behalf, and afterwards they meet once more in the park, where he finally responds with
A faint clap of thunder,
Even if rain comes or not,
I will stay here,
Together with you.
It is the response tanka to the first one Yukino says in the very beginning of the movie. It’s a poignant and important moment in the film where you can see that these two characters are searching for very different answers to their ‘lonely sadness’ and yet somehow have found much of what they seek in each other. I won’t spoil the entire ending, but I think it’s important to stress that these themes of ‘lonely sadness’ and ‘love’ are not things to be won or conquered. They are not broken things waiting to be fixed nor are these broken people. It is about finding something, learning to live with certain things, and the strength to persevere and continue on. It’s about communication and miscommunication, and the importance of one and the folly of the other. After these two glimpses into Shinkai’s talents I have high hopes for his next project. I would never place him on a pedestal once occupied by Miyazaki, but I have no problem creating a new one just for him.
Man: 259 Loneliness: 33