Since the release of Makoto Shinkai’s latest film, The Garden of Words, the general reaction to it has been positive with unanimous agreement that it is a visually stimulating work of art. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a number of people who think that The Garden of Words is lacking in story, character development, and closure. I have to disagree with those people as I found the 45 minute film to be bursting with hidden meanings that address all of those things. In fact, I think The Garden of Words is Shinkai’s most thought-out and deliberate film and I will discuss why by offering some of my interpretations.
I have structured this post to cover aspects in roughly the same order that they make a significant appearance in the film. It may seem awkward with the way they’re connected, but it helps to highlight just how much is going on in the background.
Why did Shinkai make Takao a shoemaker?
Considering the age we live in, it’s very rare for a teenager to aspire to be a shoemaker. Most 15-year-old boys still dream of becoming sports stars or some other glamorous professional so why did Shinkai decide to make Takao a shoemaker? Throughout the film, shoes play an important part in an extended metaphor, but it might not be obvious at first. In its most basic form, shoes function to support and protect people from things that may be lying in our path. A higher function of shoes is to allow us to express ourselves through fashion and style. Now think about that for a moment; where else did we see support, protection, and expression in the film? Takao and Yukino’s relationship shows all three of these aspects clearly. Takao supports Yukino during their encounters by offering her a companion to spend mornings with and not have to worry about everything crumbling around her. He also protects her when he confronts the students that were spreading the rumours about her. Finally, Takao allows Yukino to express her true feelings. It’s a very Cinderella-esque situation where Takao was the perfect fit for Yukino. If Takao were not training to be a shoemaker, it would have been difficult to establish the shoe metaphor and it is important to keep this metaphor in mind as it plays into other aspects of the film, especially the climax and ending.
The Garden and the Rain
It’s easy to pass off the garden and rain as tools to show of the film’s exquisite animation quality, but they are far more than that. The garden sits in the heart of Tokyo, a megalopolis that extends as far as the eye can see, as if it is hiding but at the same time standing in defiance of the world around it. This is where Takao first sees Yukino sitting on the bench, a hint to what the garden symbolizes: Takao’s view of Yukino. Takao states that Yukino represents the secrets of the world, he knows nothing about her other than that she defies social rules by skipping work and drinking beer in a park where alcohol is banned. Yukino is also shrouded in mystery, much like how the garden is hidden away amongst the skyscrapers. The mystery surrounding the garden is emphasized when a couple appears while Yukino is reading a book and the boy states that he can’t believe they’re still in Shinjuku. I think this connection between Yukino and the garden was done deliberately in order to lead up to the climax, which I will discuss later.
Unlike shoes and the garden, the rain plays both a developmental role and a connecting one. Whenever it rains, it acts as a bridge connecting Takao and Yukino, that part is obvious. What I also gathered from the film was that the rain represented their disillusionment with each other. The rain cuts out all noise from the city, drowning everything out with the sound of raindrops, leaving only the chirping of birds. In a way, the rain transforms the world and delivers Takao and Yukino to their special place. The rain also acts to drown out aspects of both Takao and Yukino so that they never really see each other in full light. Remember when Takao confronts Yukino after discovering she is a teacher? It was bright and sunny. When the thunderstorm rolls in it’s like there is one final hurdle that the two of them must overcome in order to really understand each other, leading directly to the climax.
A Fork in the Path
The train station plays an interesting role. It is the gateway to three different worlds: Takao’s school life, Yukino’s adult world, and the garden. Once at the station, it is up to the traveler to determine where to go. This decision was shown subtly throughout the film, and most prominently when Yukino debates where to go. Shinkai really did a great job contrasting the train schedule here on the left with the trees on the right, representing the path to the adult world versus the one to the garden. In the first scene with Yukino at the station, she reluctantly heads onto the train but doesn’t get on before the doors close. In the second instance, when Yukino goes to the side of the screen where the trees are without hesitation, it shows that she now values her time at the garden more than anything else.
Le Petit Prince
A great artist knows his audience and Shinkai demonstrates this in a short pan over Yukino’s bookshelf. As with most people, I can’t read Japanese and since Shinkai is releasing this film to an international audience, he has to keep this in mind. Here is where a novella titled “Le Petit Prince” comes in. It is near the end of the bookshelf, but stands out due to the size difference with the books around it. Le Petit Prince is a story recognized around the world about a pilot that comes into contact with a prince from space. As the two of them get to know each other, they become attached, but in the end must part ways. In a way, Takao and Yukino play the roles of both the pilot and the prince interchangeably. Both Takao and Yukino are misunderstood by the world, like the pilot, but both appear to each other as this person that finally understands them, like the prince. Presenting Le Petit Prince prepares viewers for what is going to happen.
What was happening with the eggs?
Something that seems very ordinary, but also deliberately placed was the cracking of eggs. When watching The Garden of Words for the first time, I had to ask myself why Shinkai decided to show Yukino fail at cracking an egg. It soon became apparent when Takao cracked two eggs later in the film. In my view, the eggs were a representation of life. In the first egg cracking scene, there was only one egg and it created a mess, much like how Yukino was alone and her life was a mess. When Yukino and Takao were together, the two eggs were cracked without any mess, representing how Yukino and Takao were supporting each other.
The Power of Words
Despite the title, few words were spoken in this film, but that means that each line holds so much more meaning. I’m sure everyone has focused on the tanka poem already so I’m going to discuss my favourite lines from the film: Takao’s confession and subsequent rejection. Here I’m going to assume that the translation I have is correct and that Takao did say that he “thinks” he’s in love with Yukino when he confessed. This highlights one of the problems in their relationship, how can they have one when Takao is so young and inexperienced that he doesn’t even know if he’s in love? Takao’s role as not an actual shoemaker, but a shoemaker in training also serves as a reminder that he is still just not ready.
Yukino’s response to Takao’s confession was what really blew me away. There was no acknowledgement, no excuse, and no dodging. Her reply that it’s not “Yukino-san” but “Yukino-sensei” (sensei = teacher) was absolutely loaded. In a way it is a rejection, but in a way it’s not. Yukino has brought up the fact that she is a teacher and Takao is a student therefore they cannot be together. Whether or not she is in love with Takao doesn’t matter because she has chosen to place society’s values above her own. It also leaves Takao frustrated, wondering what Yukino is actually thinking and if she ever cared about him. Keep in mind what rain represents and note that this whole time it has been raining, which sets the stage for the climax.
The moments leading up to and including Yukino embracing Takao outside her apartment were some of the most powerful I’ve ever seen. To those who say it was abrupt and had no lead-up, I say you are missing the story. The shoes, the garden, the rain, the confession and rejection all converge to this point to create a powerful scene that will have anyone thinking “this is a masterpiece”.
Remember when I discussed how shoes represented support, protection, and expression and how Takao was offering this to Yukino? When Yukino runs after Takao, there is a strong emphasis on her feet with the camera zooming in several times. The film is pointing out that she is barefoot – she has just lost her support and needs to get him back.
The rain is also coming down heavily when Takao walks out, a symbol of Takao and Yukino’s disillusionment with each other. When Takao reveals everything in his outburst it dispelled any remaining illusions the two of them might have had and the skies suddenly clear.
When the two of them embrace and the camera zooms out, they are standing in a tall apartment building outside of the garden. Some people may be wondering why such an important scene takes place in a stairwell when the rest of the movie has been in a beautiful, lush garden. Recall that the garden represents mystery and secrets. Now that Takao has revealed everything, there is nothing hidden between him and Yukino which is why the garden falls into the background and why they are no longer a part of it.
Everything in the film leads up to this point in a wonderfully crafted scene. Yukino accepts that she can’t walk alone forever, Takao dispels any illusions he had, and the two are able to leave their hearts bare in a warm embrace.
When I grew up and fell in love, I asked my sweetheart, ‘what lies ahead?
In the dénouement, Takao receives a letter from Yukino stating… we actually don’t know. Love him or hate him for it, this was another deliberate act by Shinkai. We only get a glimpse of the last line of Yukino’s letter, but the content of the letter is not what’s important, it’s the paper that it’s written on. At the very bottom of the page is a line from the famous song Que Sera, Sera. While Yukino did not write this line, its importance to the film should not be understated. As the lyrics to Que Sera, Sera say, whatever will be will be. Takao and Yukino had their romance, they fell in love, experienced the happiest time of their lives, and broke up. Whatever happens beyond this point will depend on fate; Takao and Yukino will not actively try to reignite what they had.
Takao finally finishes his shoes for Yukino at the end of the film. The shoes help to tie up some loose ends. Much like how Takao acted as Yukino’s support, Yukino was Takao’s support. He was a shoemaker in training at the beginning of the film, having only made shoes for himself. Yukino’s presence helps Takao grow as an adult, which is paralleled with his development as a shoemaker. Having now experienced love and loss, learning the “secrets” that Yukino held and dispelling the illusions that he had about the adult world, Takao is now closer to being an adult that can walk on his own. The shoes that he leaves behind helps to symbolize this by acting as proof that he has advanced as a “shoemaker”. The shoes are also proof of Takao’s support for Yukino.
The Garden of Words was brilliant in the way it connected all of the major plot points to lead up to the climax and then closing off any remaining issues in the dénouement. It is not only visually stimilating but mentally and emotionally stimulating. Everything was deliberate and had a purpose. There was so much going on that the film felt much longer than 45 minutes. Perhaps the only major question left unanswered was whether Takao and Yukino ever get back together. Here again Shinkai takes his audience into consideration. In Japan, there is this belief that duty takes precedence over personal desires, especially amongst older generation. However, many people believe that love conquers all. The beauty of The Garden of Words is that it allows for multiple interpretations. The ending does not reveal what happens to Takao and Yukino, so those who value duty can believe that they never get back together even if Takao goes to visit Yukino. On the other hand, those to value love can believe that once Takao has graduated and become a shoemaker, he will visit Yukino and their love will be rekindled. Both the duty and love interpretations are correct in my opinion since the film leaves it open-ended.
I expect there to be some disagreement with the interpretations I’ve offered here, but a sign of any work of art is its ability to invoke different interpretations and meanings from different people. I welcome any differing interpretations and encourage discussion on aspects of the film I have not covered such as the tanka poem, Takao’s family, and Yukino’s taste disorder. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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