You know of Makoto Shinkai and his works. You’ve probably seen Weathering With You and Your Name. Both are aesthetically pleasing anime movies that have set the benchmark in terms of animation in the anime industry. The question I have for you today is a simple one: have you seen The Garden Of Words? If you haven’t get out of here and start watching it this instant. Come back once you’ve finished watching it so that we can try to analyse what the movie is trying to convey to us.
Are you back? Let’s begin.
I know I sound too enthusiastic, but The Garden Of Words struck a chord with me. Today, I’m going to explain my interpretation of the movie and analyse the meaning behind certain scenes. I see so many people writing this anime off by claiming that it’s just another romantic love story between a student and a teacher.
Not only do people make this misinterpretation, but I’ve seen big-name bloggers maintain that this movie is lacking depth. No one can argue that this movie is eye candy and most probably the most beautiful animated film in the world, but it’s so much more than that. Before you raise your forks because we have differing opinions, try and hear me out. Let’s see if I manage to change your mind. Don’t worry, senpai will explain.
The overarching theme that centralizes The Garden of Words is lonely sadness.
It didn’t take rocket science to come to this conclusion. Check it out here. I’ll quote the interesting bits below from animenewsnetwork.
Shinkai wrote on his website that this is the first time he is making a “love” story — in the traditional Japanese meaning of the word. He added that there were words long before there were characters to write them in this world. The Japanese language during the era when it had no written form is known as “Yamato kotoba.” The language during this time had its own pronunciations, before the importation of kanji characters from China.
At the time, “love” was written as “lonely sadness” (koi). Moreover, according to Shinkai, the modern concept of “love” (ai) was imported from the West. While his new Kotonoha no Niwa film is set in the modern era, it will be about koi in the original “lonely sadness” meaning — of longing for someone in solitude, as opposed to the modern meaning.
Anyway, you get the idea, but what does lonely sadness actually mean?
Lonely sadness isn’t just being sad from loneliness. It’s a bit more nuanced than that. It’s more to do with the feeling of being surrounded by people, but at the same time, you couldn’t feel more alone. Usually, this stems from the inability to connect to the people around you. The sad part about lonely sadness(no pun intended) is that it happens all the time in our lives. Sometimes we realize it, and sometimes we don’t, but through this, we crave for a connection and hope that someone sees us for who we are.
How does this manifest in the anime?
The garden represents a shelter for misfits
In the very first scene of the movie, Akizuki mentions the following as he looks up to the sky:
“When I was little, the sky was closer… So much closer. That’s why I like the rain, as with it comes the smell of the sky.”“
I feel that sky symbolizes the desire for freedom. As Akizuki looks up to the sky, you can see a bird soaring freely in their domain. The bird is the embodiment of Akizuki’s desire to break free from the shackles of society.
It’s important to note that he specifies that the sky was closer when he was younger. My take is that while we were kids, the world seemed so fun and easy. We didn’t have responsibilities, and that meant not having to worry about anything. Our guardians would take care of everything. In this case, the sky symbolizes freedom and that feeling is lost as we grow older. We start to shoulder more responsibilities and society forces us to conform. Being the rebel that he is, Akizuki skips school when it rains in search for that freedom.
A shelter from what?
My answer is it’s a sanctuary from society. I believe that one of the reasons people experience lonely sadness is because they don’t fit the mould. Usually, what makes someone different than the other is the perception of what is normal by society. Once someone escapes this perception, they will be a misfit. The expectation of what is normal causes them to have a hard time connecting with people due to their eccentric interests.
There is a bridge where Akizuki crosses to enter into the garden signifying his desire to seek refuge from the world around him. Akizuki interests lie in shoemaking and intend to pursue that as his career. A path that strays from the usual white-collar is very unconventional, especially in Asian cultures. The garden is where he meets Yukino, another person like him who is trying to find shelter from the pressures of society.
Yukino has her reasons for lonely sadness. She is already 27 years old, but find it hard to maintain a connection with the people around her. Her students treated her poorly from a baseless rumour, and her ex-lover ignored her cry of help. Over time, she lost the will to speak up on how she feels because she thinks that no one even cares. What was she to do? When the person who was close to her didn’t even bother to listen.
Hence, both of them take shelter from the expectations of the world and the meaningless connections in their lives.
I think it’s worth mentioning, but as Akizuki encounters Yukino for the first time, they both take a long pause while looking at each other before taking any further action. I believe this is because both of them are wary of the presence of the other person. They feel as if they’re metaphorical sanctuary is being invaded by another meaningless encounter or someone who looks down on misfits. They’re afraid that the other person will remind them of things they don’t want to remember.
The Garden Of Words is also about finding a sense of belonging in the world
Where are people who don’t belong to go when society has cast them out? Everyone is searching for a sense of belonging. Some people just have a harder time finding it. When this happens, usually you’ll see misfits come together. Sometimes in odd pairs, and sometimes it can be between a student and a teacher like in The Garden Of Words. When people can’t find a place to belong, they’ll find it within people who are in similar situations.
When both of them returned to the garden, they had very different reactions towards seeing each other. Yukino greets Akizuki happily, whereas the latter seemed like he was hoping to be alone. This subtle difference in their tone to one another is because Yukino has acknowledged Akizuki to be in the same boat as she is.
She realizes this when she recognized his school uniform when they first met. Akizuki is from the same school as her, but he doesn’t know who she is despite the rumours. People who are always in their own world are usually social outcast. Upon realizing this, Yukino is able to put her guard down towards Akizuki as he is not one of those voices who will judge her for something she didn’t do.
Akizuki, on the other hand, is only able to open up once they start conversing and realizing that she’s escaping her daily struggles as well. Both are in different phases in their lives, but their circumstances couldn’t be more similar. The way each of them handles it is different and will argue the point of who is more mature despite their difference in age.
The identical situations that they’re in allows them to form an unexpected connection. With this in mind, let’s move on to the next point.
Solace in companionship
“A faint clap of thunder
Perhaps rain comes,
If so, will you stay here with me?
― Makoto Shinkai, The Garden of Words”
The essence of lonely sadness is the craving for companionship. The issue is that it’s not as people make it out to be. Not everyone can offer us the companionship we require. Each person is different, and we will ask of different things from people around us. Some will be able to provide while some may not. A companionship only arises when there is a connection, but it’ll only go to waste if that connection can’t meet our needs. Depressing as it is, this is the normal flow of life.
Everything happens for a reason. This statement, although debatable holds true in the case of Yukino and Akizuki. Both have holes inside them, but through mere chance, their meeting has allowed them to fill the void in each other. Although not long-lasting, Akizuki and Yukino can cast off their worries in each other’s presence. Yes, it’s love, but it’s not the romantic love people keep associating this movie with. It’s the purest kind of love: the love birth from companionship.
In his fifteen years, Akizuki has never connected more to anyone than with Yukino. It’s because Yukino listens and hangs to every word. Most people tend to laugh off when you talk about your dream that is different than what’s usual. To have, someone far older than you pay attention to what you have to say, makes it seem like our dream is achievable no matter how bizarre it might seem.
The emptiness that plagues Yukino is somehow similar to Akizuki. All her life, most of the connections she had were superficial or that they didn’t take her seriously as a person. Akizuki provides the thing which she needs the most. Validity. Through their conversations, he makes her feel important by speaking about things that are close to his heart. He values her opinion and respects her as another human being.
Sure, I missed her, but… I think it’s clinging to those feelings that’s keeping me a little kid
Another thing that I’d like to note is that both of them are trying to capture a trait or aspect of the other person. For example, Yukino admires Akizuki’s purpose and aim in life. That’s why she mentions that she isn’t much smarter now than when she was 15. Akizuki wants to bridge the gap between them. He is fascinated by her but understands that she is in a world different from his. He becomes impatient to achieve his dream because he realizes that is the only way to stand on the same level as Yukino. The reason both of them are chasing these aspects in the other person is that it’s what they lack in the present moment. Yukino has no purpose and maturity, while Akizuki is young and is far away from his ideal reality.
Interpretation of the tanka
Many people take the tanka at face value and interpret it as an expression of romantic love. I have different thoughts about it. The rain in the tanka symbolizes the hardships that come in life. The tanka is asking a question of whether someone will stay through another’s suffering, or will they walk away? I find this very beautiful.
It’s parallel to the situation that Yukino faces. Her ex-lover, who was a teacher at the same school, chose to prioritize the reputation of the school, instead of taking Yukino’s side through those tough times.
There is one flaw in the relationship between Akizuki and Yukino which I will discuss below.
They can’t walk by themselves
“You know… Before I knew it, I wasn’t able to walk properly anymore”
The companionship that they have is great because it fulfils the needs of both of them. The issue is that once you take someone out from the equation, they can’t function properly anymore. When summer arrives, Akizuki stops coming to the garden because it breaks the promise he made in the beginning: To miss school when it rains. The emptiness in Yukino starts to resurface again.
Yukino mentions that it feels like a different place in the summer. The garden is still the same, and is never changing; what changed was her feelings towards it. It’s important to note that she mentions this when a pair of tourist sit by the pavilion. I believe that this symbolizes that her shelter has shifted from the garden to it being Akizuki.
She has become too dependent on Akizuki that his presence has become a necessity for her to keep moving forward. People are essential to help us grow as humans. They should inspire, motivate and hold out their hand to help other people. The thing that they cannot do is carry them on their backs. A saviour complex fundamentally isn’t that bad, but when it interferes with someone’s growth, then it can be. If we want to help the people around us, then we have to allow them to experience things, whether it’s good or bad.
The good thing is that Yukino realizes that she has to learn how to walk by herself.
The train and the shoe
Before I move on to the end, I’d like to touch on two aspects of the show and what they represent.
I believe that the usage of trains in The Garden Of Words symbolizes the fast pace of the modern world. It’s especially true in developed countries like Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom to state a few. Everyone is always rushing to be at someplace. No one takes the time to stop and appreciate what’s around them. I feel that this is one of the major causes of lonely sadness because everyone is too self-absorbed in their own lives. People will start to feel lonely although in a big crowd of people.
The Garden of Words has a lot of symbolism in its movie. One of them is the shoe and the ability to walk. Shoes help us walk more comfortably and efficiently in surfaces that are less suitable barefoot. The shoe symbolizes the help we need from others. As funny as it sounds, I believe Akizuki is a shoe to Yukino as he is what helps her get through a difficult phase in her life before she can manage it on her own. Before we even put on a shoe, we should be able to walk barefoot so that even when help does not arrive, we can overcome any tough situations in our lives.
The end of The Garden Of Words
Most people say that the ending scene of The Garden Of Words was too sudden, but it’s one of my favourite scenes in anime. I mentioned the importance of how connections can lead to companionships and are usually the prerequisite to romance, but all that can be in vain if we don’t put all our cards on the table.
The ending scene to me symbolizes the two characters allowing each other to see them at their most vulnerable state. Yukino running down the staircase barefoot signifies that she is willing to learn to walk by herself even if she’s barefoot.
Akizuki then lashes and it’s basically a desperate attempt to get her to open up about herself. They formed a companionship, but she never let on much, and before he knew it, she was going to leave back to her hometown. This is Akizuki at his most vulnerable which forces Yukino to respond the same way, and in doing so telling him how he saved her during their time at the garden.
In the end, they both move on with their lives but maintain contact via letter. I understand it’s a bittersweet ending, but what’s important to note is that some people enter our lives only temporarily to provide growth which comes in many different forms. These encounters might seem coincidental, but they might prove to be the most essential to our growth as a human being. I’m sure that Akizuki and Yukino will meet again in their future when they both can walk by themselves even if they’re barefoot.
To be honest, although this is a short film, it’s one of the toughest for me to analyze. That’s because The Garden Of Words is so subtle that you can come up with different interpretations. I don’t know if anyone can tell, but this is my favourite Shinkai film because of how it resonates with me so much. I watched it at a time when I was quite young, and it made me realize a lot of things early on. Every time I watch it, I find something new to take home. It’s just that fascinating of a movie. One Hollywood movie that I feel is reminiscent of this is ‘Lost In Translation’.
Another reason why I find it so hard to analyze this film is that when you watch it, there’s this strong feeling that you just can’t put into words. Each time I try to write it down, the points I want to make would be so disorganized and hard for me to follow. Anyway, I’ll leave you all with this:
“A faint clap of thunder
Even if rain comes not
I will stay here,
Together with you”