I give one of Makoto Shinkai's shorter movies...an 84/100!
Makoto Shinkai is a director who has made a name for himself in recent years. He started out doing short movies before dipping his toes into longer feature length films, and then his movie Your Name came out and basically became the most popular anime movie ever. I've been following some of his work since Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and I only just now saw a short movie he made in 2013, The Garden of Words, thanks to Netflix. Now, I did see Your Name, and I have yet to finish my review of it, but I found it just...okay. It had some good ideas, but it suffered from trying to be too big for its own good and combining ideas together that mix like oil and water. I find that Shinkai is at his best when his movies aren't trying to be big and ambitious. As far as his movies go, I think this is his personal best and my favorite Shinkai movie (Though my favorite short goes to Dareka no Manazashi, which I need to rewatch one of these days).
The story centers on a young high school student, Takao Akizuki, who knows what he wants to do with his life but feels alienated and stuck. School hasn't done much for him, his mother isn't around, his brother isn't the most supportive of his dream of being a shoemaker, and he regularly skips classes whenever it rains. He wants to become an adult as fast as possible so he can make his own living. One day, while skipping school, he comes across a young woman, Yukari Yukino, at the gazebo he frequents. Although Takao isn't very fond of authority, the two of them form a friendship over the course of their rainy day meetings. Yukari has some problems of her own and sees her meetings with Takao as an escape from her own hardships.
I admit to only having seen a few of Shinkai's movies, not all of them. But one thing that many anime fans know about Shinkai is his penchant for absolutely breathtaking animation, especially on the backgrounds and environments. There's no denying that his production team really goes all out on the backgrounds. Every frame is packed to the gills with detail, from the ripples in rain puddles to sunbeams through glass, it really feels like the world Shinkai makes for this movie feels alive, even down to the sound mixing and usage of ambient noise to set the atmosphere. It also really goes for "show, don't tell" at every possible time, like conveying how Takao wants to be a shoemaker by showing how he always sketches feet and shoes. I don't have as much to say on the soundtrack. It's good, though I can barely tell you anything about it except that I didn't like the ending song. I found the singer for that to be too obnoxious for my liking.
I like the characters well enough. The main two are pretty good, and they both have aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses people can relate to. They're not going to bring the house down or anything, but with the setting being as realistic as it is, and not trying to make them big and bombastic, Takao and Yukari fulfill their roles pretty well. The side characters on the other hand...really don't get to shine as much, as many of them are just there to either dump exposition or cause the main conflict in the movie, not much else. We only get one line of dialogue in regards to Takao's mother and she's only in the movie for one scene and that's it. I feel like if the movie had been longer, it could have gotten the chance to expand on them a lot more, as they shouldn't be relegated to just props to move the story along. But the main two really carry the movie on their shoulders, and I liked them perfectly fine.
Now, people who aren't huge fans of Shinkai often point out that he often either rehashes the same story over and over in different ways, or bites off more than he can chew. Considering this is a 46-minute long movie, he opted for a more realistic setting here, which is fine. Having seen some of his work, I can understand where some of his detractors are coming from. I saw Your Name, and I feel that it tried way too hard to be too many things at once when it could have just stuck to one plot and made the most out of it. Garden of Words is just that, a simple story of two people finding solace in one another in the face of their own personal hardships...but there is one part of the narrative that I'm sure people are going to have an issue with: Takao is a high school student, and Yukari is a teacher, and the story implies that Takao is in love with her. Japan has a...weird fascination with age gap romances (CardCaptor Sakura is one of the more egregious titles in regards to this), and I totally understand why people would be put off by it, as this kind of thing would absolutely NEVER fly in countries like America. If a teacher or a student got together romantically, the teacher would get arrested for sure. But without spoiling anything, I think Garden of Words handles the subject very well. It doesn't try to condone or encourage a romance between a teacher and her student, and the way the plotline is resolved, while not upfront about its answer, does subtly imply that any romance between them would never happen, something I greatly appreciate. The movie doesn't necessarily end happily ever after, but it does still have a sense of hope that things will get better for Takao and Yukari in the future.
That being said, the actual ending does, unfortunately, come across as very cheesy and melodramatic. Again, I won't spoil how it plays out, but it does involve a lot of dramatic yelling and crying, overly triumphant music, and usage of light rays that make the ending feel like it came right out of a sappy Hallmark movie. That's really the only dark spot I feel the movie has is how cheesy the final scene before the credits played out, and Shinkai does tend to go for the melodramatic when he feels like it. But yeah, that's pretty much it for my feelings on Garden of Words. Is it a perfect movie? No, but how do I like it? Out of the few works of his that I've seen, this is my favorite of his movies. It stumbles near the end, and at other points, but the things it does well, it does really well, and any person looking for a low key, somewhat realistic, relaxing movie should definitely check out Garden of Words at least once.