Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Garden of Words
On rainy days, high school first year Takao Akizuki always skips class. He goes to a gazebo in the park to regain a little peace in his life. One day he is surprised to see a young woman there as well. As she leaves, she quotes a tanka poem that sticks with him, and Akizuki finds himself pondering its meaing and where he might have heard it before. As the rainy days add up, he and the woman begin to form a relationship there in the gazebo of what begins to feel like their own secret garden in this manga adaptation of Makoto Shinkai's film.
Sometimes life can seem like too much. Whether it is a toxic work situation, trouble at home, or just an overwhelming need for everything to just stop for a moment, everyone needs a safe place to just exist without any problems for awhile. For first year high school student Takao Akizuki that place is a gazebo in a beautiful, garden-like park. He only allows himself to visit it on rainy mornings, skipping his first class(es) and retreating with his sketchbook to what seems to be the one place where he can find peace. But one day he arrives at the gazebo to see a woman in her twenties already there. Neither are entirely comfortable with the presence of another person, but neither are they willing to give up the sanctuary the gazebo offers. They share an uneasy moment in time before leaving, but when the next rainy morning comes, both return to the spot. Before long they have formed a bond based solely on their shared time in the gazebo, and it isn't until the very end that they learn about each others' lives. The result is a love story that deals in several kinds of love and is very gentle and low-key. Although there are numerous traumas in the characters' pasts, they let the rain wash them away during the time they spend in the garden, creating the ultimate safe space that allows a gentle relationship to grow.
The pacing of this single manga volume is one of the most interesting and effective parts about it. Shinkai and Motohashi start us right off with Akizuki heading to the gazebo on a rainy morning, letting the background characters tell us what's going on rather than having the hero himself spend time on explanations. Not until the end do we see anything that remotely resembles information begin directly given to us by the characters; everything is dispensed through either side comments (“Don't you know he never comes on time on rainy days?”) or implication, such as Takao casually telling his older brother than their mom took off again. This always for an organic feel to the storytelling, making the plot feel, if not more believable, than more like real life relayed through a book. We are thrown into the characters' world and when we leave them there is a sense that they will continue to live – we just aren't there to see it. This creates an intimacy to what might otherwise have been a simple slice-of-life story, giving us the opportunity to really understand the characters by merely observing them.
The Garden of Words deals with several topics that we don't usually see in pop culture. While there have been at least two previous manga and anime to use tanka poems as a major plot point or device (Chihayafuru and Utakoi), I cannot think of a single title that has a protagonist who aspires to be a cobbler. Akizuki has a fondness for shoes that at first we think might be creepy (as does the woman in the gazebo), but as the story progresses, it turns out that he simply wants to make shoes. Although it is never overtly stated, we get the distinct impression that he has not been encouraged in this pursuit, which may form part of his unhappiness. The other topic not normally seen that The Garden of Words tackles, albeit indirectly, is students bullying a teacher. While not as common as students bullying each other, it is something that happens and is just as toxic and damaging, especially if there is no support from the administration, and its inclusion as a major plot point is interesting.
Midori Motohashi's artwork is dreamlike and beautiful, and she uses some good techniques to show the evolution of the two characters' relationship. One particularly nice one is the way she always draws something between them until the end, be it the direction of a bench's planking forming a separating line between the two or a vine hanging down. It's beautiful and subtle symbolism that helps to enhance the story without our really realizing it until it's gone, which also mirrors parts of the plot itself.
Emotional wounds are the hardest to heal. When Akizuki cuts himself with his leatherworking tool, the bandage goes away after two chapters, but the deeper problems only fully resolve off the page. The ending, however, is hopeful, making this a generally uplifting book. While I cannot speak to its relationship or fidelity to the film, the manga version of The Garden of Words is a beautiful book with deceptive depth and charm, ultimately a hopeful story about finding peace not just in solitude, but with other people.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : A-
+ Subtle storytelling methods used in both art and text. Vertical's translation reads easily, nice use of some themes we don't see often.
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