Sunday, May 14, 2017

All that heaven allows (may, in fact, vary by jurisdiction)

(Kotonoha no Niwa)

Happy Mother's Day, I guess!  Here's maybe the best Japanese cartoon ever that isn't Death Note.

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai
With Miyu Irino/Patrick Poole (Takao Akizuki) and Kana Hanazawa/Maggie Flecknoe (Yukino Yukari)

Spoiler alert: moderate

First of all, they shouldn't sell short films by themselves, and they definitely shouldn't charge eighteen dollars for them, not even on pristine blu-ray.  Second, I should probably acquire more information about a movie than "I technically have enough money in my bank account to afford it" (such as its runtime) before I actually commit myself to buying it.  Third, sometimes I'm really glad that I don't, for if I had done even the most cursory research on Makoto Shinkai's The Garden of Words before I bought it, and watched it some other way, I'd have been in a very bad way—stuck between the rock of needing to own it, and the hard place of refusing to do so on principle, because it's all of 46 damn minutes long, including five minutes of credits.

(Oh, and fourth: maybe it's not the greatest idea anybody ever had, to put absolutely essential narrative material right at the very tail end of your five minute credits sequence, where you could only stumble upon it by accident—though I concede the distancing effect of the device works.)

Clearly, these are the whinging complaints of a doofus who didn't do his diligence; but it's still the case that the most divisive thing about Garden is that truncated runtime, or, more specifically, the structure it takes on in order to complete its story within that runtime.  Shinkai himself, upon developing the project, says he didn't know exactly how long it would be until it was finished, but he never intended for it to be feature-length, and he certainly never envisaged it being given any kind of theatrical release—though, upon the strength of its writer-director's reputation, it got one anyway, screened alongside Shinkai's simultaneously-produced (and much-shorter) short, Someone's Gaze, a crushingly bittersweet rumination of a middle-aged daughter upon the subject of her deceased father (and which, obviously enough, really ought to have been included on that aforementioned $18 Garden blu-ray, but so it goes).

Garden, anyway, fits in well with Shinkai's customary brevity.  It doesn't seem like the most commercially-friendly approach the writer-director could have taken, but it does seem to have worked out: right up until the release of Your Name last year, Shinkai's longer-form work had been received with significantly less fanfare than his short subjects, especially 2007's widely-beloved 5 Centimeters Per Second.  But Garden's brevity is quite possibly one of the things that makes it what it is, which is—just to get it out there—a straight-up, god-tier masterpiece, and by any metric you'd prefer me to judge it.

Well, like virtually all of Shinkai's works, Garden is a melodrama first; however, like only 5 Centimeters before it or after it, Garden is melodrama without any sci-fi shenanigans to get in the way of the feelings of its heartbreakingly-human leads.  Indeed, Garden is maybe the purest strain of melodrama possible, at least that doesn't leap over the line that separates the great melodramas from goofy old soap opera.  (Garden actually pushes that always-fuzzy boundary.)  I suppose it's predictable that the film's structure—which Shinkai expressly conceived as the middle act of a story, that only possesses a first act in terms of the backstory it implies, and possesses no third act at all—could come off as frustrating.  (Especially to the sort of viewer—not me—who finds himself inclined to shout questions at fictional characters who can't hear him, such as "so did you fuck or what?")  But I'd say it's just about exactly as long as it should be.

So, armed with a Malickian preponderance of voiceover narration from both leads—and despite a strongly-literary bent, wherein psychosexual symbolism is arrayed with sincere abandon, people don't ask each other's names for months, and the plot revolves around a pair of freaking poems—Garden tells a deeply visual story, consisting quite exclusively of Shinkai's magnificently-curated collection of essential details.  No tangents; no distractions; not an ounce of fat on its bones.

Yet one concedes it might not look like such a narratively-flawless thing at first glance, not when so much of its short runtime is spent on its characters sitting quietly, or speaking, without us actually hearing their words—it is in these moments that narration, or piano music, or the sounds of nature, or simple silence tends to fill the soundtrack instead—whilst the editing (also by Shinkai, incidentally) pieces it all together with a surfeit of seemingly-distracted cutaway shots, of what might be the most jaw-droppingly beautiful CGI-boosted background animation ever created for a 2D presentation anywhere.  The emphasis is on disconnection—from daily life, from nature, from oneself, from everything—and its converse, reconnection—perhaps more accurately, revitalization—and that brings us back 'round to Malick again, inasmuch as Shinkai reminds one of what Terrence Malick could be getting up to, if he were a lot more into cartoons, teenagers, and stillness, and rather less into lithe camerawork, pseudo-Christian obscurantism, and frolicking.

Unlike Malick, then, that story is straightforward enough.  In Tokyo, we find Takao, 15 years old, virtually orphaned by his single mom's drinking and alley-catting around, and muddling along through a crappy first year of high school.  Normal, really, though perhaps lonelier and sadder than most.

Recently, he's found it to be in his best interest to skip morning classes every day it rains, whereupon he travels to the local Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.  Here, he expects to be left completely alone; but on the day we begin our tale, he discovers his favorite shelter in the garden, a small gazebo in the midst of the abundant greenery, has already been occupied by an adult woman imbibing beer and chocolate bars in lieu of breakfast.  He asks if they've met before; she can only answer no.  But this woman—Yukino—leaves him upon their first encounter with a mystifying four-line tanka that, in itself (and with its proper reply), sums up everything about the relationship that's about to begin:

A faint clap of thunder,
Clouded skies,
Perhaps rain will come.
If so, will you stay?

They begin seeing each other often after that—not quite by accident, but neither entirely by design—always at the same spot, skipping school or (allegedly) skipping work, every time it rains.  Little by little, the pair become friends, and there is always the creeping possibility of becoming something more, as Takao gives more and more of himself, ultimately revealing his dreams of becoming a professional shoe designer—a career path that borders on the nonexistent, of course, especially for kid stuck neck-deep in mediocrity like our Takao (honestly, he may as well have said "astronaut" or "cowboy").  But she indulges this particular passion anyway—and perhaps not in a way that one would deem entirely appropriate, considering their age difference.

And then the monsoon season ends.  One sunny day after another follows, and they do not meet again, until they are brought back together—to Takao's surprise, at least—in a very different milieu than the garden they'd been able to call their own.

Naturally enough, Garden deals with much the same obsessions that Shinkai has pursued his whole career, both as a writer—the melodramatics of teenaged love smashing headlong into a brick wall of impossibility—and as an animator—hyperreal backgrounds (of mostly real-life places, at that), psychotically-good lighting effects, and strong, nuanced character animation.  In point of fact, Garden, with characters designed by one Kenichi Tsuchiya—a trans-Pacific presence with more experience working for American studios than Japanese ones—boasts by far the most naturalistic figures of any of Shinkai's films.  To these eyes, they're some of the most appealing partly for this very reason, though it's not the only one, nor even the most important: Shinkai insisted upon exceptionally realistic coloring, wherein the specific color of the light surrounding Tsuchiya's characters replaces their usual thin black outlines.  It adds verisimilitude, almost subliminally—I didn't consciously notice this particular technique the first time around (though nobody could help but notice the superior attention paid to the reflection of the greenery surrounding Takao and Yukino, upon their skin and hair).  But by making its presence most distinctly felt in the scenes in the garden, Shinkai's trick works on a deeper, more emotional level, too: by literally removing the barriers between this pair of exceptionally well-thought-out cartoons—leaving their "inner selves," so to speak, exposed.

There's no such thing as a wasted gesture in Garden: every last aspect of its visualization (indeed, its audiovisual presentation overall) goes toward furthering its emotional gauntlet. It winds up divided, more-or-less neatly, into three general kinds of shots: ordinary close-ups and medium shots, which hardly any non-avant-garde piece is likely to do without; meandering detail shots of stuff, of greenery and of a rain-drenched Tokyo, that connect mostly upon a thematic level; and then, the most interesting category, shots that take our gaze through cluttered foregrounds—through a curtain of rain, or through garden foliage—that come off as gently voyeuristic, as if we've intruded upon something intensely private.  (While one shot in particular, coming at the moment of the first physical connection between the two, sees fit to separate them, with a branch striking diagonally through the foreground—perhaps in case we were to get the obviously-incorrect impression that Takao and Yukino could ever have any actual future together.)  But anyway: when our leads are already confined by the comfortable claustrophobia of encroaching rain (and, no less, by the melancholy and infinite sadness of Daisuke Kishiwa's piano), the effect of Shinkai's shot design adds one more layer to the atmosphere of almost electric intimacy, as if you could feel the chill of the wind and damp for yourself, and would desperately prefer our two would-be lovers simply, finally embrace—just for the warmth, if nothing else.

This is before we even account for the nearly-magical character of all that precipitation: one estimates that something like 35 minutes of Garden is spent in the rain.  It never becomes repetitive, as the film runs through its comprehensive taxonomy of a half-dozen different species of rainfall, bending each type to the characters' feelings—all the way up to the obligatory near-hurricane that threatens to overwhelm the outside world entirely.  It is, altogether, the kind of exacting, astonishing, all-embracing mise-en-scene that's really only even possible in animation: between Garden's overarching design scheme and a brand of photorealistic "cinematography" (a credit also shared by our renaissance man, Shinkai) that pretends that the lens is capturing and refracting real light sources, it's hard to even imagine a cartoon being more exquisitely-made than this, up to and including the later Your Name, which isn't exactly what you'd call a piece of shit.

This might all matter slightly less if the more overt aspects of the narrative didn't do their part, too, in a mutually-reinforcing fashion—though, again, virtually every square inch of every frame of Garden should rightly be considered an indispensable part of its narrative.  But, happily, they do, starting with the vocal performances themselves.  Like most any official import, Garden has its Japanese language track and its English dub; and both have their strengths.  The English dub has the balance of advantages, I think: it's more colloquial in its translation than the subtitles, and this is a good thing, if sometimes a double-edged sword (it frankly drops the ball slightly when it's required to translate the glorious teenaged word vomit that issues from Takao's mouth in his moment of ultimate emotional breakdown); but the dub would win regardless, thanks to a better-cast (and, bluntly, better-acted) Yukino, in the form of Maggie Flecknoe, whose deeper voice better suits the temptress Takao perceives, and whose borderline-inarticulate roar against the void in the climactic moment knows not the slightest hint of restraint—and therefore represents the perfect choice to close out the film.

It's amusing to listen to Shinkai's commentary, which is about 20% him apologizing for some of Garden's less-savory content, while pretending the rest doesn't actually exist.  For a while now (though especially since Your Name hit), Shinkai has been routinely assaulted with the unwanted title of "the next Miyazaki."  It's funny, because I don't remember the Miyazaki joint about a teenaged boy with the blatantly-sexualized mommy issues, crystallized into a foot fetish that he's only barely managed to sublimate into a career goal, and the grown woman he meets, who might actually be an active sexual predator (this is left cagily ambiguous) but who is, at the very least, ephebo-curious, and therefore starts semi-accidentally grooming that teenaged boy for something more all-consuming than one supposes she consciously intended.

It's a small miracle of Shinkai's humanist approach that it feels vastly less weird than it is (one presumes it's Quentin Tarantino's favorite cartoon of all time).  It grounds Takao and Yukino alike in such instantly-recognizable dissatisfactions, while making it so clear why they'd be drawn to each other despite their extremely patent flaws, including their age gap, that there's never the smallest sense of exploitation—even when there is a scene where our heroine literally offers candy to the minor child.

There remains, of course, a persevering sense of wrongness about their could-be love, though through the empathy machine that is cinema (and animated cinema, especially), Garden convinces you to root for it anyway.  Besides, in his way, Takao's awfully precocious; and while he probably shouldn't love Yukino, for a whole lot of reasons that don't even necessarily involve her age, it's never really in question that he does so with something akin to an adult's capacity—albeit, unfortunately, only with a child's heart.  (Which is, crucially enough, an infirmity Yukino shares, making her, perhaps counter-intuitively, by a wide margin the saddest figure in this story.)  That may be why Garden doesn't see any need to sacrifice the essential adolescence at the center of its elliptically-told tale, and Takao is one astoundingly credible teenaged boy—seemingly a man in most every respect, right up until he stumbles, ass-backwards, into the kinds of situations that could only seem rational to a boy caught in the grip of his first love.

Such is the privilege of great melodrama, and especially great young adult melodrama (of which there is, dispiritingly, almost none in the U.S.): it gives us access to the passions we might ourselves have lost, years ago, to our so-called maturity, and do not expect to ever feel again.  And that's never more the case than in Garden's explosive climax—which is flawlessly overwrought, except for one thing.  It's Shinkai's characteristic downfall: namely, his Godawful taste in pop music.  (It's the only objective way that Garden's too short, I suppose.  Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Motohiro Hata's excruciatingly banal vocals have to punctuate Garden's climax—a losing argument, to be sure—Shinkai might have at least given us a breath or two while we finished crying, instead of slapping our wet faces with his cold fish of a ballad immediately.)

Perhaps it helps that Garden, like its best forebears, is not crassly lustful: if Shinkai is the next anybody, he's the next Douglas Sirk, a title not likely to be awarded by anime nerds who, by and large, have never heard of Douglas Sirk in the first place.  Sirk's sense of love as an escape from a world-sized trap is the defining feature of this film, anyway—despite Garden's frontloaded sexual imagery, and despite the fact that, from my Western perspective, it is never not going to be a romance, which is to say, a story about two people that definitely want to have sex (while, in my own, probably pathological way, it's clearly a tragic romance, this being defined as a story about two people that don't get to have sex).  In any event, in this regard, it is extremely Japanese—though universal in its application.  The Garden of Words is a film concerned, above all, with the fact that two people in a city of thirty million have, against all the odds, found someone else who truly cares that they are human beings.  It's amazing, because it's rarer than you'd think.

Score:  10/10

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