Kotonoha no Niwa (Garden of Words) is Makoto Shinkai's (Hoshi no Koe) latest gift to the world of quality anime releases. After a slight deviation in style and setup (Hoshi o ou Kodomo), he returns to the recipe (Byosoku 5 Senchimetoru) that brought him international recognition in the first place. I for one am glad to see Shinkai return with a shorter, more focused and even more eye-popping film while keeping true to the style that clearly works best for him.
Nowadays Makoto Shinkai is a household name amongst anime fans. People await his new film with strong anticipation, but that used to be a lot different. Shinkai is a true self-made man in an industry that really doesn't support this model. His first films were projects of love done almost entirely by himself. Since then he's grown and so has the team around him, but that early experience really taught him how to make films that stay close to his own persona. Even though people often describe his films as sentimental and/or corny (and with good reason), they never feel fake or commercialized.
Kotonoha no Niwa is a vintage Shinkai romance. It's a bit sappy in places, it's hopelessly romantic and tackles the relationship troubles head on. Aside from the romance, there is literally nothing. But the film is never too idealistic. Like Byosoku 5 Senchimetoru Shinkai's latest doesn't necessarily rely on a happy ending, nor does it paint a rosy picture of relationships, instead it highlights people's intimate feelings separate from their real-world consequences.
The film follows Takao, a young student learning to become a shoemaker. Takao doesn't care too much for his lessons and often skips school to go to the park and work on his own designs. On a dreary morning he meets Yukino, a slightly older lady who likes to skip work on rainy days. The two get acquainted and soon after Takao starts to fall for the charming Yukino, skipping school to visit the park whenever the rain sets in.
As a non-animator I never quite understood how Shinkai managed to get so much detail into his drawings. I bet he makes good use of computers, but it hardly ever shows in his films as the CG blends in perfectly with the traditional animation. With Kotonoha no Niwa Shinkai raises the bar to unseen heights. Even if you think the story is crap, even if you don't care a bit for the film's romance, Kotonoha no Niwa is still worth seeing if only for the stupefyingly lush settings and animation. Every single frame is worthy of pausing, overloaded with beautiful and subtle details. Even though most of the film is set during rain showers, the color scheme feels fresh and warm, like a welcome spring shower. Character animation too is a big step up from previous films, not Disney-fluid but packed with delicate details. Visually this film is nothing less than stunning.
The soundtrack is Shinkai's traditional combination of soft piano/string music with a few typical (in this particular case just one) J-Pop songs. It's a very fitting, though little exciting soundtrack that sounds just a little too generic at times. The music basically works well, but the formula is tried and tested and while the music definitely enhances the overall atmosphere, you won't remember much of it afterwards. Except the token J-Pop song of course, if only because it sounds so alien to most Westerners. The dub on the other hand is top notch. Very strong voice acting that lends the characters extra depth.
After struggling through a two-hour voyage with his previous film, Shinkai keeps Kotonoha no Niwa's running time short. Personally I prefer it that way. It allows the man to focus even more on details as there is only about 1/3th of the material to worry about. A story like this doesn't need much more time either, unless you want to add some extra filler just to blow it up to reach the 90 minutes limit. The ending comes quick, but is ultimately fulfilling and the film left me with an immediate urge to watch the entire thing again.
Kotonoha no Niwa is everything you'd expect from a Shinkai film. If you didn't really like his previous work you will probably have the same reservations about this one, but fans can rest assured that Shinkai just keeps on improving his skills, delivering sweet, lovable and visually mind-blowing pieces of cinema. Kotonoha no Niwa is amongst his best films to date and might even grow with consecutive viewings. Essential viewing for all animation fans out there.