After striking out from his comfort zone with Children Who Chase Lost Voices, 2013 sees Makoto Shinkai return to what he arguably does best - a love story, in the form of The Garden of Words to use its English title.
Of course, cut and dried tales of romance can be pretty dull, so instead this short film introduces us to two characters who are struggling to fit into their assigned roles in the world. On the one hand we have Takao Akizuki, a high school student who has little interest in following the well-trodden paths of others, and instead desires nothing more than to learn how to design and make shoes. On the other we have a mysterious woman who prefers to spend her days skipping work so that she can drink beer and eat chocolate in a local park rather than do... well, whatever it is she does.
Despite maintaining that sense of mystery about her, the region's rainy season sees Takao and Yukino, the woman in question, meeting ever more frequently, and as time goes by a connection develops between them - although Takao knows little about this woman he can't help but fall for her, while Yukino is racked with guilt and worry due to her own circumstances. As time goes by and the rainy season comes to a close it seems as if the world has conspired to keep these two individuals well and truly apart, but sometimes love is a little stronger than that, even when such a romance seems to be simply impossible.
Let us being by saying this - The Garden of Words is one of, if not the, most visually sumptuous anime every created. Taken as a whole, the entire short film is simply beautiful - making raindrops and greenery look gorgeous is one thing, but taking the clutter and minutiae of everyday life and giving it a similar treatment deserves high praise indeed, and as a result this movie is too beautiful for words alone to convey. Of course, visuals are only one aspect of a story, and in terms of the film's wider narrative The Garden of Words is less of a lesson in perfection - at times its pacing seems rushed, and at others its hard to get into the head of its characters. However, as a whole The Garden of Words is as satisfying emotionally as it is visually - the dynamic between the two main characters is believable throughout, and the guilt and worries which come from the age gap between those two individuals is strikingly authentic. Heck, we even get something approaching a happy ending by Shinkai's standards, leaving just enough up in the air for the viewer to make their own mind up without feeling like a disappointment.
Given his body of work, it would be harsh to single this out in particular as a masterpiece, but nonetheless Kotonoha no Niwa is a superb work that deserves a viewing in the best circumstances possible visually, while also delivering a story that has just the right balance of emotion, realism and entertainment to be immensely satisfying. It's a tough call to label this Makoto Shinkai's best work, but it certainly runs his previous efforts close in that regard.