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Review - The Garden of Words

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

Park Theatre

Playing until 9th September 2023

Based on the Anime by Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Alexandra Rutter

Adapted by: Alexandra Rutter, Susan Momoko Hingley

Produced by: Shuang Teng for Whole Theatre in association with Park Theatre

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Review {AD-PR Invite} - First published on Everything Theatre

A stage adaptation of Makoto Shinkai’s anime movie and its subsequent book, The Garden of Wordstells of the short-lived encounter between Takao (Hiroki Berrecloth) and Yukari (Aki Nakagawa), both of whom find it difficult to fit into the environment in which they live and work.

This adaptation significantly expands on the movie’s story by drawing upon the more in-depth narrative of the book. In line with a richer material, the play is an hour longer than the movie. Takao is mature behind his years, possibly due to his mother Reimi’s (Susan Momoko Hingley) irresponsibility, and dreams of becoming a shoemaker. Yukari, on the other hand, is a teacher and is subjected to the negative effects of unsubstantiated rumours, and under investigation by the school. The two characters meet by chance on a rainy day in a park, and they continue to do so during the rainy season. Despite the fact they have never introduced themselves properly, the two develop a strong platonic friendship due to their common inability to fit into their social environments.

The story holds immense potential, exploring social anxiety, family and relationship turmoil. However, with the exception of the main plot, the other characters’ development barely progresses beyond the surface, and their stories never take off. Takao’s brother Shota (James Bradwell) moves out of his family home to be with his girlfriend, Rika (Iniki Mariano). This could be an opportunity to explore the relationship between Shota and his mother, and how that impacts his relationship with his girlfriend. Instead, the audience is treated to a lacklustre treatment of Shota, Reimi and Iniki, and it is difficult to appreciate the significance of these characters on Takao’s journey.

The main characters are supposed to be awkward and uncomfortable with themselves and the environments in which they exist, and Berrecloth and Nakagawa capture these character traits well. However, this should not be the case for the rest of the characters. Unfortunately I could not help but sense a degree of awkwardness in the wider performances, which made the overall experience unengaging.

There are a couple more elements that contribute toward this. One is the use of the Japanese language for part of the performance. While it is perfectly fine to incorporate different languages, one should at least be able to understand what it could mean through its context. However, in this case, some of the Japanese dialogues were used unduly, beyond the occasional words, and the meanings were simply lost to a non-Japanese speaking audience. Furthermore, the play makes use of translated Japanese poetry after every major scene. In the absence of sufficient time and understanding of the poem’s structure, it is difficult to grasp how these complement the story.

Despite the issues with the character development and the way in which the narrative is communicated, the set design and music are both beautiful. The set, through the use of projections, is easily transformed to a Japanese garden or cityscape in different seasons and weather. The music also creates a sense of melancholy, matching the feelings of the story well.

The Garden of Words introduces the concept of how a brief and momentary encounter can shape the life of an individual, and should be applauded for its attempt to incorporate the Japanese language and poetry in its storytelling. However, the whole would benefit from re-evaluating how the different literature mediums are used, and the characters and their development fit in the overall narrative.

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