Actually, it may be several of them. I have lately been talking about some of my favorite movies — not so much the ones that I truly love but what I recommend. So I’ve avoided talking about the ones you’ve likely already seen or that have made a huge splash recently in the mainstream press. I love Star Wars (likely because, apart from the truly astonishing cinematography and brilliant dialog, it brings back memories of Sunday afternoons in front of the television with my father, who’s also a fan) and various other mainstream movies — not many, I must admit but some. They rarely give me much in the way of satisfaction and pleasure, though, especially the more recent ones. Being gritty and normal and focusing on sensation and the like simply triggers all the unpleasant responses in my mind and body and ruins the experience for me.
Movies are about escape — really, they’re beyond that. They’re about escapism. The desperation to get out of a place and a mind frame. And I’m all for that. I live in a place that I have abhorred since first I set foot in it and I can’t wait to leave. The reasons why escape is difficult are myriad and complex but most of it comes down to the fact that I haven’t been offered a job in a place I want to be, despite hoping and working toward that goal. Someday, though, I will be successful and say goodbye to this place permanently. But I can do it temporarily on a screen, a couple of hours at a time. If a movie doesn’t let me have a peaceful and pleasant escape, it’s useless. It might be something other people want but for me, the only reason I’m watching something is to escape my life and find something better. If I don’t want to be living the life of one of the characters, there’s no motivation for me to watch them live it. I’ve never understood the point of watching reality television or anything along those lines. I don’t enjoy laughing at other people’s misfortunes and I simply don’t find it funny in the first place. I’m looking for someone’s life to inhabit for a couple of hours instead of my own. If their life sucks, I’ll just keep mine and save myself the bother.
The one that’s on my mind today, though, is mostly motivated by today’s writing prompt about the changing seasons. This is a hugely significant part of Japanese culture and probably the one that I most thoroughly don’t understand. I don’t enjoy change of any sort, especially environmental change. It being bright and sunny all day every day, nice and warm without wind or rain or, horror or horrors, snow and ice, that is perfection for me. I don’t want to see leaves change color or blossoms fall. I want everything to remain absolutely static. That way it’s not shocking or painful. It just is a background and that’s lovely.
One of the most impressive animated productions of the last decade is, in English, The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭 in Japanese) and it’s admittedly nearly a decade old but I have still seen nothing else, except perhaps Weathering with You, which still hasn’t released outside theaters at this point for some reason, that can compete with its beautiful artwork. What’s more impressive is that it has such an impact while being a short film. It’s only about three quarters of an hour long but you’ll feel like you experienced an entire feature-length film when you get to the end.
I’m not going to get into the subtlety of the title and its various possible interpretations but, unsurprisingly for a Japanese production, the hidden meanings are myriad and pregnant with context. The plot is relatively simple. It’s a love-or-friendship story, something that is extremely common in eastern cinema and nearly completely absent in its western counterpart. In short, two characters come together and become something that is either friends or lovers without necessarily being explicit about it going either way. When something tips the balance for one of them in favor of one or the other designation, the whole thing falls apart and the rest of the story is about trying to resolve the ensuing conflict — if you’ve seen Your Lie in April or Snow White with the Red Hair, both beautiful and recent productions, you’ll be familiar with this trope.
Takao is a high school student who skips class when there’s rain but makes himself go and show up when it’s sunny. It’s an interesting exercise in self-discipline but really it just works out to be that on depressing days, he sits in the park and eats, sketching shoes. He wants to learn how to make designer footwear — a side plot that has little to do with the rest of the story but definitely shows just how far outside the norm of expectation he is compared to others in his generation. He’s all about the beauty, the esthetic perfection of fine crafting while everyone else is showed to be focused just on modern flash. He meets Yukari in the park who is skipping work, drinking beer and eating chocolate on those same rainy days. They develop a passing friendship without having to speak (in a garden without words, one might say) that eventually develops how one might expect. He’s probably younger than he seems and she’s by no means old.
What happens next, though, is rather surprising. While most of these pseudo-relationship stories focus on some sudden impact on the couple-to-be that makes further closeness difficult (they find out they’re quite possible related or one of them has a terminal illness, for example, in two movies you may immediately be able to think of), Yukari already knows they can’t have a relationship of a more physical and traditionally-penetrative nature. She’s a teacher at his school. But he’s the one who’s mature and stable, focused on his future and already responsible for his life. She’s broken from the student body torturing her, a fractured relationship and an inability to cope with daily life in general. How they overcome this is surprising and, in true Japanese fashion, without satisfactory conclusion. It’s hard to say whether, at the end of the story, they will remain best friends or head toward married pseudo-bliss.
It doesn’t matter, though. I would say that this is one of the most emotionally touching things I’ve ever seen. The story being simple doesn’t take away from it. Actually, it may do quite the opposite and make it easier to get lost in the words and movement and artwork as it floats by. It has some of the most beautiful contemporary drawings of Tokyo that I’ve ever seen — strikingly accurate, too, I promise. It’s not the underside of the city and gives a bit of a rose-colored perception of what you can experience from a place that is, in many ways, a bit of a disaster once you get outside the squeaky-clean tourist-focused areas and financial districts. But for what it shows, it’s true-to-life — there was a local blogger who actually went and took photographs of many of the scenes from the movie just after it was released and the accuracy was staggering, right down to the placement of traffic signs and the proportions of the buildings.
If you happen to have an hour to spare at some point and want to spend some of it crying, coming out of the experience smiling broadly and thinking the sun is shining a bit brighter, I highly recommend it. You won’t need to suspend your disbelief — it’s highly realistic in pretty much every way. Unlike typical love stories, especially western ones, it’s not idealized or contrived. This is the kind of relationship that can easily develop between people, confused and unpredictable with the knowledge on both sides being partial and unevenly spaced. If you don’t want to stand up and cheer when it’s done, I swear you have no soul.