The Garden of Words: When Animation Mimics Reality

Director Makoto Shinkai uses animation to imitate the properties of a tangible camera, creating a resounding effect on the audience.


The following may contains spoilers for The Garden of Words!

Takao Akizuke, an aspiring shoemaker, skips school on rainy days to sketch shoes in a public garden gazebo. One day, Takao encounters Yukari Yukino in the garden, a 27-year-old woman who skips work to sip beer and eat chocolate. As the days go on, the two meet in the garden more often, and slowly bond over their shared feelings of alienation from the outside world.

The fourth feature film by Makoto Shinkai, The Garden of Words often receives heaps of praise for its animation quality, the result of Shinkai’s long partnership with Comix Wave Films. The gorgeous visuals, paired with the film’s mellow soundtrack create a calming aesthetic that relaxes audiences, engaging them with the film. However, the animation’s quality often overshadows a brilliant, but subtle, technique that Shinkai uses to immerse the audience in the film’s opening 30 seconds. The animation in The Garden of Words doesn’t always behave in a way that is typical of animation, instead, it often mimics the movement of a real camera, installing a sense of realism and life into the shots.

When discussing camera movement, images come to mind of great panning shots, like those Kurosawa used, or exaggerated dolly work, often associated with the films of Spike Lee. But Shinkai’s camera movement in The Garden of Words is subtle. Due to the hand-drawn nature of the animation process, every shot and scene can be perfectly stabilized, hence why the camera often glides elegantly through even the most earth-rumbling action scenes in Shounen anime. This is where Shinkai shines. His technique, which is so often overlooked in The Garden of Words, is a simple destabilized camera. Shinkai uses such a minor effect to create a vast juxtaposition between the alienating feeling of the city and everyday life, and the sense of peace and happiness Yakao and Yukiro find in the garden.

Takao standing at the station in The Garden of Words
The Garden of Words (2013). CoMix Wave Films

The Garden of Words opens with a shot of raindrops in a pond. The camera slowly tilts upwards to reveal more of the water, however, the tilt is not clean as the camera shakes slightly throughout the shot. Hard cut to the wheels of a train arriving at Shinjuku station. Despite the fast movement of the train, and the camera following it, the shot is perfectly steadied. This back-and-forth continues a second time with a shaking shot of a tree branch dipping in and out of the water, followed by the bustling interior of the train cart. In the cart, the camera centres on Takao, and follows him as he steps off the train, gets pushed around by the other commuters, and slowly makes his way to the garden. Every aspect of his journey from the station to the garden is shot with a perfectly stabilized camera, with no movement to the shot, with no ‘life’. The moment Takao steps into the garden, the shot begins to shake again, mimicking handheld camera work.

‘Only move the camera if there’s a good reason for it.’ This has long been a golden rule of cinematography. A perfectly stabilized shot is optimal for providing as much clarity and detail as possible in a scene, however, due to its artificial nature, it can reduce the audience to feeling like outside observers of the story. Handheld shots, however, can be used for a number of reasons. Horror films exploit the lack of visual clarity to build tension, while action films sometimes use the shaking motion to help audiences feel engaged with the action. Most importantly though, they add a sense of realism and immersion to the story. The unsteadiness of a handheld shot can imitate how we see the world through our own eyes as we walk, not perfectly stabilized, but shaking as our heads move, and bobbing to our footsteps. In short, it adds life to the shot.

The iconic branch shot in The Garden of Words
The Garden of Words (2013). CoMix Wave Films

It is this feeling that Shinkai exploits in the garden scenes. The Garden of Words is a story about isolation in a sprawling city and finding solace in companionship. Throughout the film’s short 45-minute runtime, the garden acts as a safe space for Takao and Yukari, it is where their friendship grows, where Yukari admits the struggles in her work and her life, and where Takao feels comfortable expressing his passion for shoemaking. For the majority of the film, it is the only place the two characters feel alive. The isolated use of ‘handheld’ shots to the garden scenes reflects this. The subtle motion of the camera immerses the audience in the scenes and helps us to engage with Takao and Yukari’s struggles. In contrast, every shot outside the garden is drawn to be perfectly stabilized, removing an onomatopoeic ‘life’ from the shot, which the audience relates to Yakao and Yukari’s feelings of isolation and apathy in their jobs and social lives.

The Garden of Words (2013). CoMix Wave Films

This is just one of many realistic camera techniques Shinkai uses to reflect the characters’ mental states. In the same opening scene, when Yakao first steps into the garden, Shinkai cuts to a shot of a wooden bridge with Yakao’s feet just in the top of the frame. In this shot, Shinkai uses a focus pull to distort Yakao’s feet, and then bring them into focus as he moves closer to the camera. Again, due to animation’s hand-drawn nature, focus is another element that is often forgotten when everything can be drawn in perfect clarity and filmmakers are not relying on tangible glass lenses. The shift from distorted image to lucidity conveys Yakao’s shift in emotions as he goes from the apathetic city to the garden, where he himself feels clear. Shinkai does this one more time as the camera cuts to Yakao walking through the park, again starting with him out of focus, then becoming clearer as he moves closer towards the camera.

While it is uncommon to see animation mimicking the qualities of real cameras, it is far rarer to see it utilised to such great effect as it is in The Garden of Words, and is one of many factors that earn Makoto Shinkai his legendary reputation in the medium.


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