Unlike the other Shinkai novels I’ve read, I had no familiarity with The Garden of Words. But according to Shinkai’s comments, the film is 46 minutes, and to cover everything written here would take 2 hours.
That might explain why I spent the whole novel wondering how the heck was this a movie…
Now, part of the reason is, again, explained by Shinkai at the end: The Garden of Words film is only from the viewpoints of Takao, a high school student with a fascination with shoemaking, and Yukino, the enigmatic woman he meets on rainy days when he skips school.
Here in the novel, it’s a different story. The ten chapters and the epilogue rotate the central character; so it’s roughly one-third from Takao’s point-of-view, one-third Yukino’s, and one-third featuring others. But no matter who the star is, it’s a lot of pondering and monologuing and self-reflecting — stuff that wholly unsuits a visual medium. The novel is more about what the characters think about their current or past interactions rather than showing those conversations and hangouts. And at over 250 pages, this is a novel. Not a light novel, not an adaptation of a movie — it’s a novel, one that feels like it should be stocked in the general fiction section versus lining up next to most of Yen On’s releases.
Of course, the story still will be familiar to fans of Japanese fiction. Yukino has burnout from her job, and Takao balances the fact he feels like a kid with his serious interest with shoemaking. Although they don’t know each other’s names, the two keep meeting every rainy day at “their” spot as they begin to look forward to rainy days. Meanwhile, others have their own relationship woes and messy histories. Takao’s mother, a divorcee, tends to run off with men. Takao’s brother tries to suppress his overbearing feelings for his younger girlfriend. A teacher at Takao’s school is involved in his exes’ lives. A student makes her high school debut that leads to misery.
Everyone, including Takao and Yukino, have people in their lives who have let them down, but they also make some bad decisions themselves. You could argue that these flaws make the characters human, but in some cases, readers are going to judge them harshly — and I can’t blame them. One character in particular is probably going to take the brunt of people’s rage, but even parts like an older man having feelings of jealousy about his girlfriend hanging out with her theatre troupe are going to raise some eyebrows.
However, Takao stands out to me as a unique lead for a coming-of-age story. He’s first introduced to readers as a middle school student, and it’s not often that characters in this age group think of themselves as kids. Even as he enters high school, he’s neither one of those “super average” guys who aren’t good at anything, and nor is his hobby one that is popular (or would be considered masculine by most of his peers). You can kind of understand why he might feel like an outsider with others his own age and also why he and Yukino are fascinated by each other.
I do want to add that several old Japanese poems play a role in The Garden of Words. Some of the historical contexts are discussed right in the story, but it was never confusing or distracting to me. At the end of each chapter, the poems’ context and meaning are explained a little more, so that also smooths over unfamiliarity with these historical poems.
Rather than cultural issues, it was The Garden of Words‘ format that was bewildering to me. But I know that’s mostly a personal issue since it was not what I expected to read. Shinkai has always placed a lot of emphasis on internal emotions in his novel adaptations, but this one I feel he took it to another level. If you prefer reading books that are like a series of therapy sessions versus people-watching, which is what movies tend to be like, then you’ll probably enjoy The Garden of Words more than I did.