Rain, trains, sunlight peeking through the rain, a disaster of an ending: I do not know if 2013's The Garden of Word has the most Shinkai Makoto of any film, but at just 46 minutes long, I do know that it has the highest density of Shinkai Makoto of any film. In a sense, it's also the film where Shinkai coalesced into being himself, for it comes at an important crossroads: his previous major project, 2011's Children Who Chase Lost Voices, was also arguably the clumsiest thing he's ever done, an attempt at proving he could make a Miyazaki Hayao film that in fact rather persuasively demonstrates the opposite; his next major project, 2016's Your Name., would be... I mean, hell, it's Your Name., almost beyond question the most prominent anime feature of the 2010s, and the one that made Shinkai arguably the second-most prominent living Japanese animation director behind Miyazaki himself.

That risks giving the wrong impression, like the most important thing about The Garden of Words is that it cleared the cobwebs out of Shinkai's brain and cleared a path for his next film and masterpiece. On the contrary, The Garden of Words is quite an extraordinary piece of work on its own, and to be honest, I might even toy around with saying that it remains my favorite of the director's films; its short running time and total lack of genre trappings give it an intimate simplicity that his more sprawling, longer films struggle with. It is a restful film. Plus, by virtue of being so damn short, it means that it has less time for its ending to go off the rails, so instead of being stuck in a downward spiral for 30 minutes, as in 2019's Weathering with You, or a whole goddamn hour, as in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, it's more like five minutes, hardly worse than ripping off a band-aid.

But let's save the ending for the ending. In the beginning - and it's literally the first shot - there is rain. Wonderfully wet and hazy computer-generated rain, falling into an almost photorealistic background painting of a pond. The pond is in Shinjuku Gyo-en, a national park in Tokyo that was once the private garden of a noble family, and is now celebrated as one of the most beautiful locations of the city; Shinkai used photographs he took of the garden as reference for his storyboards, and some of the backgrounds were the same photographs, covered in a veneer of digital paint. It would be exaggerating not at all to say that The Garden of Words cares more about celebrating Shinjuku Gyo-en than literally anything else, particularly during its opening 30 minutes.

Or rather, it cares about using the garden, and the rain animation, and several other affects on top of those, to craft a very specific kind of mood that transcends the story and characters, though it runs in parallel to them. The film treats rain as something of a paradox: it is cleansing and rejuvenating, but it is also gloomy and isolating, both greatly pleasurable and melancholy at one and the same time. The backgrounds amplify this feeling through the use of limited color palette (mostly shades of grey and green) in which those colors are perfectly designed to accentuate and exaggerate each other; the greens of the garden are intensified and made to feel more lush by virtue of having no other colors to draw attention from them. Also because of the film's gorgeous digital lighting techniques, which lightly shade green onto the character cels, making them feel like they're being lit by the background itself, in a way; the result is a film that seems to glow from within, even through the deft portrayal of overcast skies and diffuse shadows.

It is, in short, a film all about how the most depressing kind of weather can, in the right mindset, seem transcendentally beautiful, and to maximise our awareness of the environment around us. The film goes absolutely nuts with its portrayal of the garden as a vivid, three-dimensional space, using shallow depth of field and layer upon layer of background and foreground elements moving in different directions to suggest a camera casually gliding its way around the space, situating the two characters at the heart of the story in a visually dynamic environment. There's a feeling of hyper-awareness of space all throughout the film, which is then tweaked to create certain moods: a lighting storm that looks like an oil painting feels playfully romantic in a way that photorealistic water droplets are more about making us feel the rich, nourising wetness of the rain.

The extraordinary sensory vividness of the film allows Shinkai's delicate little story to do its best work. It's quite a spare thing: teenager Takao (Irino Miyu) skips school on rainy days to sit in the garden and think about his dream career, designing shoes, and the rainy season has just started, so a lot of these days are coming. One day, he spots a woman in her late 20s in the shelter he's heading to, Yukari (Hanazawa Kana), drinking beer and eating chocolate, a combination that strikes him as thoroughly bizarre. But they chat, and they chat more every rainy day, and then the rainy season stops. It's the lightest and sweetest of all Shinkai's stories of two people finding each other interesting and trying to learn more about each other, brought together by their loneliness but also the way they don't entirely dislike being alone. The complete lack of anything even marginally resembling a conflict for the first half hour means that The Garden of Words focuses entirely on the moods of these two characters, and those moods are given to them by the visuals, and by Kashiwa Daisuke's gorgeous piano score, something that feels weepy, but more from a sense of overwhelming sensitivity to beauty than from sadness. If that makes any vague kind of sense. One might say that the characters channel the film's emotions more than they generate them; but given the concision of the film's storytelling, that approach works. They are light sketches of personalities, just strong enough to support 46 minutes; think of this short story rather than a novella like most movies, and the way that the deliberately smudgy character work benefits the movie rather than limits it starts to make sense.

Once the rain stops, the film is no less beautiful - Shinkai loves the bold white quality of sunlight just as much as he loves the soft grey of rain, and the saturated vividness of the world keeps it feeling full of life. Unfortunately, this is also the exact point where a couple of things happen in the screenplay that don't benefit the film at all. One is that the ethereal vagueness of the first 30 minutes transforms into a concrete plot, particularly as concerns Yukari's backstory - we've learned a few things about her, such as an apparently psychosomatic inability to taste anything but beer and chocolate (transforming that from an odd gag into a bittersweet depiction of a woman anxiousl trying to experience something), but now we actually get that conflict the film was avoiding. And, like, we almost had to, so it's not that big a problem. But there is something mighty contrived in the conflict we get, particularly in the form of a big gaping coincidence that makes it impossible to believe that Takao and Yukari have never met before - it moves the film from a delicate kind of quasi-magical realism into something much blunter and more inauthentically melodramatic.

The last paragraph is spoilery - not in specifics, but certainly in the abstract

The bigger problem, by far, is that Shinkai indulges in the specific form of romantic sentimentality that has, as far as I'm concerned, never once worked out for him. The possibility that Takao and Yukari are in love is, or at least that one loves the other, is always present in The Garden of Words, but for the first 30 minutes it's love in a very abstract way. Near the end - literally with about seven minutes to go, including credits - the film commits to it. And here Shinkai's characteristic weakness for over-investing that romantic yearning meets the unbridled creepiness of the fact that Takao is a minor - a fact that the film acknowledges, to be sure, but it acknowledges it in a very clunky way, and Yukari's final emotional beat in the movie seems like an act of pure screenwriting willpower trying to make it not matter that it's creepy. The result is a cluttered and rushed emotional climax that wants to tap into the transporting romantic richness of hopeless love while also making this love chaste and innocent and about something else. The fact that all of this is crammed into just about three minutes of screentime, after which the film races at top speed into a pop music montage that plays under the end credits, makes it feel even more like Shinkai knew he had written himself into an unresolvable corner and hoped that if he just dealt with it very, very fast, it would be less painful. And sure, this film's bad ending is, both in the absolute number of minutes and in its proportion to the whole, the smallest bad ending of his career. But it's also probably the worst of them, enough to make the whole experience of The Garden of Words feel a bit more broken and unsatisfying that seemed remotely possible during that glorious opening half-hour of the best and most emotionally transporting rain animation in modern cinema.