It's no secret that here at UK Anime we love a good bit of Makoto Shinkai - in fact we've never scored one of his films lower than an 8. So when we reviewed the theatrical screening of The Garden of Words it came as no surprise that this short film kept up that proud tradition. Not only that, but the film surpassed all of Shinkai's other work in our reviewer's eyes and earned a perfect 10 from our editor-in-chief Andy Hanley back in November. So, before we turn our eyes towards Anime Limited's physical release of The Garden of Words I'm going to make you go off and read Andy's theatrical review.
Done reading? Excellent, welcome back. Andy describes the film almost perfectly. Almost.
The Garden of Words is a real return to form for Makoto Shinkai after the slightly disappointing Journey to Agartha. It sees Shinkai return to what he does best: Being Matoko Shinkai, instead of trying to live up to the "next Hayao Miyazaki" label he has been saddled with over recent years. Where Journey to Agartha suffered for being a faux Ghibli film in a world that already has Studio Ghibli, The Garden of Words is pure Shinkai - that is why we love the film, and also why I have to disagree slightly with Andy.
For all his obvious talent Motoko Shinkai has a real problem with endings; he just can't manage to get them right. 5 Centimeters per Second is a notorious example - it ends in a pretty but ultimately vacuous montage set to some widely derided music (a "grating throat belch of a song" according to our review by Elliot Page). It is obvious that with The Garden of Words he has tried to respond to 5 Centimeters per Second's critics with a more tangible and conclusive end. Unfortunately the ending of The Garden of Words falls flat for another reason - the last few minutes are a blur of emoting as the film rushes towards it's conclusion. The beautiful and subtle relationship between the lead characters that has been built slowly and painstakingly suddenly bursts, exploding with overblown emotion and culminating with each of our leads acting against type, all in the name of conclusion. Thus the ending, like in so many of Shinkai's other works, feels out of place. It detracts from an otherwise perfectly paced, beautiful, romantic and subtle example of story telling. If Makoto Shinkai could just figure out how to conclude his films with the same genius he builds them with, then I have absolutely no doubt he would be the next Japanese director lifting an Oscar; following in the footsteps of Hayao Miyazaki not as the "next Miyazaki" but as the one and only Makoto Shinkai.
Although it's a fairly barebones release by their standards, Anime Limited have done a great job of packaging up this film for the UK market - the artwork on the cover is lovely and the reversible insert is a nice touch. I can't praise them enough for releasing The Garden of Words on Blu-ray, as the film boasts arguably the best animation you will ever have seen and it really shows off the advantages of the HD format. Having been lucky enough to have visited Shinjuku a number of times, I can attest to the fact that Makoto Shinkai's eye for detail is meticulous, even down to the fine detail of the timetables in the background at the station - it almost felt like I was back there again. Everything you see on-screen from the biggest skyscraper to the tiniest movement of leaves in the breeze is sumptuously animated. This is a beautiful film that simply must be viewed in HD to fully appreciate the exceptional quality of the animation.
I'm not usually one to step into the shark-infested waters of the sub versus dub debate in reviews, but having had the opportunity to view the film with both audio tracks I feel on this occasion I must weigh in. This release is really let down by the quality of the English dub, which doesn't even come close to the excellent original Japanese audio. Takao's English voice actor in particular is poor; his performance is wooden and loses much of the character's charm and nuance, much to the detriment of the film. Furthermore a great deal is lost in translation - if you watch the first few minutes in both languages you will see a staggering difference in content and mood between the two. The English dub has neither the detail nor the subtlety of the original Japanese, taking an exceptional film and transforming it into something lesser. Another shortcoming is the absence of subtitles for on-screen text when the English audio is selected. By way of an example: occasionally during scene transitions kanji appears on-screen to inform the viewer what time of year it is (which is important as Japan's weather is very seasonal, so it informs the likelihood of rain) - If you select the original Japanese audio this is fully subtitled. However, if you pick the English audio, unless you can read Japanese there's no-way to tell what they say without switching on the full subtitles (which are a distraction as they don't match the English audio).
All in all though, Anime Limited have put together a nice release of a wonderful film - the only shame here is that Sentai Filmwork's English dub does not do the film justice. Even taking that into consideration, I have no hesitation recommending that everyone buy The Garden of Words - it is a masterclass in subtle storytelling and you simply will not find a better animated film. Just remember to knock a mark or two off our review score if you're watching with the English audio.