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Garden of Words, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Makoto Shinkai's animated films are fantastic, even when realistic."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A new animated film from Makoto Shinkai at this point necessitates my going back and re-reading what I have written about the rest of his productions, as it can look somewhat lazy to praise him the same way every time. Fortunately, he's done critics the favor of mixing his output up somewhat, so this forty-six-minute featurette in a contemporary, realistic setting is quite distinct from his genre-tinged works. But, yeah, it's great.

This particular story tells the tale of Takao (voice of Miyu Irino), a high-school freshman who cuts class on rainy mornings to go to the park and sketch designs for shoes; he would like to be a cobbler when he graduates, even if there is not much demand for that sort of artisan in today's world. There he meets a woman in her mid-twenties (voice of Kana Hanazawa) who sits on a nearby bench, drinking beer and eating chocolate, not talking about why she's skipping work to do so. He starts to open up; she doesn't to the same extent, but her story will come out.

Though Shinkai has thus far worked exclusively in the realm of animation, part of what makes him such a fascinating director is that so many of the things he does well are things more closely associated with live-action: The editing of his films, for example, is extraordinarily good; he compresses time, flashes back to multiple points, and creates montages in a way that just isn't done in the medium very often. And while lighting and "cinematography" gets much more attention now than it used to, Shinkai's careful (re)creation of locations and attention to how the world looks based on the time of day, year, and weather is on a different level.

Shinkai gives both them and their world just enough visual detail to feel real but also let the simplified character designs work. It's an impressive balance, as the garden where much of the film takes place is lush and detailed, and there are constant wind and water effects, but it doesn't make the cleanly-sketched human beings seem like cartoon characters in a realistic world. Everything moves just right, and every detail is given its fair attention. Briefly-glimpsed but important characters are perfectly-realized without needing a beauty shot to show just how perfect.

The story itself is relatively small, but well-told. Just enough information about Takao's and Yukino's situations is dropped in to get the audience involved while making both of them interestingly imperfect. They stumble in their different periods of youth and maturity, and while their situations are very much their own, they're easy to empathize with. Shinkai handles potentially cringe-worthy moments well, whether it be the age gap or how Takao will often first look at a person's shoes rather than her face. And while 46 minutes is short for something being sold on its own, it's the right length, without extra subplots padding and diluting the movie.

So, once again, Shinkai creates something excellent, even if it is quite different from his roots. It's essential for lovers of animation, and should impress those that like a small, personal story told well, regardless of the medium.

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originally posted: 07/24/13 00:22:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Makoto Shinkai

Written by
  Makoto Shinkai

  Kana Hanazawa
  Miyu Irino
  Fumi Hirano
  Takeshi Maeda
  Fumi Hirano

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