The Garden of Words (Film Review)

Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most lively cities in the world, but there’s an oasis of tranquility right near its heart, and I’m not talking about the mostly off-limits Imperial Palace Grounds. I speak of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, once a private estate in the Edo period, and also the primary setting of Shinkai Makoto’s 2013 film The Garden of Words.

I’ll admit my review comes very late—so late, in fact, in the time between the release of the film and the day I’m writing a review of it, its co-lead Akizuki Takao would be 19 (not 15), making a potential romantic relationship with Yukino Yukari, who would be 31 (not 27) more socially acceptable. But here it is!

Akizuki loves rainy mornings. He loves them so much, he’ll skip school to visit Shinjuku Gyoen and enjoy it. One day, while preparing to sit at a sheltered bench overlooking the gardens, he encounters Yukino: a beautiful, mysterious woman in work clothes drinking beer and eating chocolate alone.

While 15, Akizuki is wiser and more mature than his years. He finds high school a major drag, and mostly stresses about a practical way to support himself doing what he loves: designing and making shoes. But when he visits the park and shares the bench with Yukino, he feels like he’s in a more mature environment, where he can sketch shoes or just shoot the breeze with her.

Their encounters also become important to Yukino, who we learn is preparing to quit her job, and is clearly in the park to escape said job and the stress/pain it causes, which was apparently bad enough that she lost her sense of taste for a time, only being able to enjoy beer and chocolate.

Not only is the hard-working Akizuki a shoemaker-in-the-making, he’s also a part-timer at a restaurant and cooks a lot at home, making him a better cook than Yukino. Thanks to the meals he shares, Yukino starts to enjoy eating again.

Wanting to help him with a woman’s shoe design, Yukino removes her shoe and lets Akizuki hold and measure her bare foot, in an intimate, even sensual scene that also happens to be practical.

That intimacy is heightened by the made-for-a-couple sheltered-bench and the gorgeous environs. But while she’ll give him her foot, Yukino never talks about herself, her life, or her struggles, no matter how much Akizuki talks about his.

Unfortunately Akizuki has to find that out when he spots Yukino, or rather Yukino-sensei, at his school—she’s a teacher there. He had no idea of that, or that she’d been taking days off because the boyfriend of a student fell for her which led to unsavory rumors about her being promiscuous and verbal and emotional abuse from her upperclassmen students.

Yukino is pained to hear all this treatment, and that she’s quitting because of it, but likely also hurt that Yukino never told him anything, or that she could even possibly have known he was a student at the school but kept him in the dark.

Whatever the case, he decides the injustice done to Yukino should have a response from someone who has come to care about her, so he confronts the upperclassmen, starts a fight, and loses. After school, they meet at the gardens, but he doesn’t tell her he fought to protect her honor.

After giving her the correct answer to her tanka poem from their first encounter, Akizuki and Yukino find themselves caught in a torrential downpour, and even when they get back under cover, they’re both soaked.

They apparently take it as a good omen, and go to Yukino’s apartment, where they change into dry clothes, and while he’s waiting for his uniform to dry, Akizuki makes Yukino a delicious meal, both noting they’re having some of the happiest moments of their lives, right there and then.

Like the sunlight, it doesn’t last, and as the sky darkens with more rainclouds, a sudden confession of love from Akizuki is countered by Yukino correcting him: “Yukino-sensei”. Akizuki hears her loud and clear: he’s a kid; she’s not, and that’s the end of it. So he changes into his still-wet clothes and storms off, just as the storm outside picks up.

Yukino doesn’t want to leave things there, so after stewing, suddenly alone in her apartment, with even Akizuki’s coffee still steaming, she does the romantic movie thing where one comes to their senses, rushes out of the house, and chases after the one they love.

When she finds him paused on a balcony, he takes back his confession and starts spewing vitriol about her intentions, but later in the rant it becomes more about why she couldn’t simply tell him, a stupid little kid, to piss off and stop bothering her. Why she never said anything to him while sharing that bench.

Yukino’s response, also classic romantic movie, is to run into his arms and sob just as the sun peeks back out from between the clouds, finally telling him why she went to that bench again and again, and how being with him helped her “learn how to walk on her own” again; how he essentially saved her.

Yukino still moves out of that apartment, back to her hometown, where she’s still a teacher. But she later writes to Akizuki, and as he reads the letter in the park where they met and spent so much time and where they taught each other how to walk, he seriously considers going to her hometown someday to see her.

The Garden of Words is gorgeous, as is expected of a Shinkai film, with its near-photorealistic exteriors, lived-in interiors, and fantastic lighting and details all around. At just 46 minutes, it runs brisk but never feels rushed, but rather feels just as long as it should be.

It also felt like a particularly intimate/personal film, though not for the reason you’d expect: I once sat at the exact same bench in Shinjuku Gyoen they sat at, unhurriedly sketching the gardens and writing about my day (though as you can see, the real one has an ashtray.) If you’re ever there I highly recommend it, just as I recommend this lush and moving little film.

Little Witch Academia – 20

Despite Akko’s protesting (with backup from Andrew) Diana insists she has no choice but to perform the ritual before the transit of Venus behind the moon is complete. She goes into the ritual chambers alone, but is immediately impeded in her mission by Aunt Daryl, who wraps her in one of her many giant magic snake familiars.

No matter how much logic he tosses at Akko, she knows it’s not right for Diana to be dropping out; she’s clearly putting her own dreams aside for the good of her family. When they eavesdrop on Daryl and her twin daughters talking about how she had no problem stopping Diana, Akko has all the moral capital she needs to break with sacred Cavendish custom and enter the sanctum to rescue her.

Andrew helps, convinced that Akko is right. He remembers how passionate Diana became years ago when talk flew around she wouldn’t be able to perform magic. We know the spark of inspiration was the twin pillars of her mother and Shiny Chariot. But to her credit, Akko keeps Andrew out of the sanctum: she’ll bring back Diana on her own…all the way back the academy.

Akko proves she can mostly take care of herself, using her patented partial-transformation magic in rapid-fire mode to lure the snakes away from Diana and stay one step ahead until she regains consciousness and saves her.

With Akko bitten and poisoned, Diana sacrifices her chance to complete the ritual by healing and staying with Akko, who wakes up, then scolds Diana for staying there with her instead of continuing on with the ritual. But this is just Diana being Diana: kind, caring, and healing, just like her mother and the centuries of Cavandishes who came before her.

It’s no coincidence their conversation is held in a facility borne of that family “affection”, a secret hospital where Diana’s ancestors used their considerable magical knowledge to heal the wounded from conflicts that plagued history, without regard to whose side they were on.

Diana’s confession of her lifelong dream (to protect and preserve her family’s and mother’s names and the home they left behind) moves Akko to assure her she can still achieve that dream, restoring her family and complete her education at Luna Nova, as long as she…you guessed it, believes in her heart.

In this manner, two Chariot superfans—one current, one lapsed—come together to realize her credo that a believing heart can make anything possible. To that end, traditional and modern powers mingle, and Diana realizes the fifth word is Akko’s for the taking.

Reciting it summons Chariot’s broom, which they ride together to reach the site where the ritual is to be completed…only to find Aunt Beryl and her daughters waiting to disrupt Diana once more.

For this latest act of treachery, Diana’s relations are punished not by her or Akko, but by the system itself, and are quickly encased in trees. As she did with Akko, Diana stays true to her family’s legacy again by putting judgement aside and helping others before herself.

By the time she’s saved Daryl and the twins, the Venusian eclipse is over, but Diana still gets a momentary nod of approval, so to speak, from her family’s founder, Lady Beatrix. She may not have quite completed the ritual, but it’s clear to all who will lead the Cavendish family’s future.

Until that time, Diana is free to return to Luna Nova, much to Akko’s delight. She also gives Akko a ride home on her broom, which is the perfect time for her to express her gratitude for what Akko did…softly, and only once. Still, Akko heard her, and after their shared experiences this week their bond has never been tighter.

After charming and fun but inconsequential episodes involving the B-characters, this Diana-focused two-parter was a welcome and worthwhile outing that brought two rivals closer together and brought Akko one word closer to potentially changing the world.

I also appreciated the bonhomie that’s gradually developed between Akko and Andrew (who will be back, at least to give Akko her hat back). While I would have preferred if Diana’s full fleshing-out arc had come sooner, it’s better late than never, and well worth the wait.

Little Witch Academia – 19

In a move that initially feels like she’s been underutilized in the show thus far, Diana makes the decision to drop out of Luna Nova Academy, effective immediately. The Cavendish family is in dire straits, she is the only one who can right the ship, and the window to assume the mantle of family leadership is closing, and won’t open again until the stars literally align years from now.

In true form, Akko either rejects whatever reasons Diana has or doesn’t bother to ask what they are: she’s only concerned with whether this is really what Diana wants. It’s clear Diana isn’t happy about leaving. But pride in her once-great family, and love and obligation to fulfill her now-deceased mother’s wishes outweighs her desire to stay in school.

Akko doesn’t make Diana’s departure any easier, so she throws Akko’s own main goal—the Words, and her inability to find them as quickly as she claimed she would—back in her face. There’s a nice meta nature to this: Akko has futzed around with Amanda and Cons but has yet to find the fifth, “history and tradition”-related Word.

There’s also the fact that Diana always thought she would be the one entrusted to the task of unsealing the words and opening the gate. But she ruefully accepts that Akko is the “chosen one”, and not her.

When Diana arrives at a huge but increasingly deteriorating Cavendish estate, we’re officially in Magic Falling Aristocrat Land, complete with Diana’s drunk aunt, Daryl. She and Diana exchange hollow pleasantries, barely bothering to hide their mutual disdain.

The sense is immediate that not only would Diana not have to deal with the collapse of her family before she finishes school, but that Daryl, the proxy head, has no desire whatsoever for Diana to come in and start mucking about the lifestyle she and her daughters cling to: sucking up what’s left of the Cavendish fortune and grinding its name into dust.

Naturally, Akko isn’t taking Diana’s goodbye lying down, and she’s clearly unconsciously drawn by the possibility the fifth word will lie in her interactions with Diana and her family. But whether it’s too slow, out of magical range, or the writers simply forgot, she doesn’t take the broom Cons made for her last week.

When she’s had her fill of travelling by foot, she thumbs a lift, and is reluctantly picked up by none other than Andrew and his father, who happen to be on their way to the Cavendish Manor. An initially tense, awkward backseat scene is lightened when Andrew refutes his father’s claim Akko “ruined” his party, while Akko tells Andrew the reason for their “fated” encounter: she’s going to bring Diana back.

Akko’s arrival with Andrew and his father certainly surprises Diana (Andrew’s line about finding her by the side of the road is at once cruel, hilarious, and true), but in this nest of vipers, it’s Diana who does what she can to keep Akko safe, claiming her as a guest (and as much a witch as she is), and getting her dolled up for dinner, after which she’ll go straight to bed and leave first thing in the morning. (Diana also hides her pried Shiny Chariot card from Akko…we know she was a big fan too!)

Akko holds her own in deflecting barbs from one of the few Cavendish maids left (her communist tendencies were well-documented from the faerie strike episode), but Akko also learns from the maid that Diana’s parents died when she was little, and she immediately feels guilty for all the awful things she’s said to her. Diana is also known within her family as being “kind” like her mother, in keeping with the Cavendish motto: “Affection.”

Akko also proves again that she cleans up nice, but her questionable dining etiquette earns her a simple wordless glare from Diana, one of my favorite moments of the episode.

The classiness and elegance of the evening starts to erode when Aunt Daryl reveals her reason for inviting the Hanbridges: she would like to sell them some prized, priceless Cavendish heirlooms, including the tapestry of Beatrix, one of the Nine Olde Witches who founded the family and was involved in the Grand Triskelion business.

It’s a very distasteful business, especially when Daryl all but begs a departing Hanbridge for money, offering a discount. This is what has become of the Cavendish family, other than Diana: a collection of people who have abandoned pride for greed. Daryl is only interested in maintaining her fancy quality of life, even though it’s unsustainable, considering there’s only a finite amount of Cavendish treasures she can monetize.

For her part, Daryl blames the sorry state of the family to her all-too-kind sister, Diana’s mother, and her insistence on helping others for free, as befits the Cavendish motto. But even if Daryl isn’t responsible for getting the family in this mess, she certainly has done nothing to get out of it.

That’s why Diana believes she must perform the ritual and become family head as soon as possible. Akko almost gets lost int he midst of this family drama, but there’s no way she won’t play a role in resolving it, no doubt unsealing a word and maybe even bringing Diana back to school in the process.