August 16, 2023
By Andrew Osmond.
Makoto Shinkai’s original Garden of Words was about no-touch intimacy, as a schoolboy and a woman met in a Tokyo park awning to shelter from the rain. The ingenious new London stage version of Garden of Words has its own strong intimacy, by virtue of its venue. That’s the Park Theatre, two minutes from Finsbury Park station. The theatre is essentially a tight room, stall seats surrounding the low stage on three sides. The play has more darkness and distress than the original film, but the venue’s friendly snugness reminds us what the main characters feel at their happiest.
I’m assuming readers know the basic story – how the boy Takao and woman Yukino strike up an acquaintance over a series of rainy mornings, each praying the rain will continue. The film was pretty much all about the couple, and the rain which enlivens them. The play is different. It’s an ensemble piece, following Takao and Yukino but also several other characters; Takao’s adult brother, his erratic-seeming mum, Yukino’s ex-boyfriend, and more. Shinkai’s film was a simple mood piece; the play’s a busy tapestry.
That’s because it’s less the play of the film, more the play of Shinkai’s book of the film, where he expanded upon his story. Most of the new material comes from there, edited and rearranged by Susan Momoko Hingley and Alexandra Rutter. I read the book recently, and throughout the play I had the uneasy feeling that made me less qualified to judge it.
That’s because of the play’s busyness. Many of its scenes are completely clear – the ones of Takao’s and Yukino’s growing friendship, still the story’s bedrock, and those of Takao’s uneasy homelife with his brother and his errant mum. But I was unsure if I’d have followed all the other strands if I’d come to the play new. Even if I’d seen the film, I might have been thrown by the multitude of new moving story parts, not to mention a few tricks with chronology. Neither the film nor the book feel complex; the play did, and I wonder if “casual” viewers might find it too much work.
Hopefully not, because the cast and staging are so appealing. An early coup is to have the actors collectively bunch up as commuters in a train carriage, while animated train wires are projected above them. Simple props are constantly redeployed; characters phone or text one another across the stage, with pings; and the largely natural performances are occasionally punctuated by hilariously caricatured teenagers, played by actors who were serious moments before, a stage answer to anime super-deformity.
There are also comments on the action through vintage Japanese verses, mostly declaimed in Japanese over the sound system while the translated text is projected onto the background – though I sometimes missed it as I was watching the actors. (My seat was also side-on to the stage; I had an excellent view, but if you’re choosing a seat, facing the stage would be best.) As with the Barbican’s production of Totoro, the actors’ motions are presented as an ongoing dance, occasionally turning into stylised little riffs on bored mundanity – or anguished mundanity in Yukino’s case, as she mimes days of silent desperation.
Then there’s the crow. In the film, it was a non-human grace note, but in the play, it becomes a motif, a graceful puppet carried by multiple performers, reflecting Takao’s and Yukino’s spirits more effectively than the rain. (As with the book version, I just never felt the rain as I did in the film, though the handmade methods to convey the climactic storm are very charming.) You might think the crow would represent menace or despair; here it means uplift to characters on perpetually thin ice. A cheery scene can give way in a moment to darkness and clamorous voices, reducing the players to ghosts inside their own heads.
All the performers are good, though Hiroki Berrecloth as Takao carries most weight, more vulnerable and adorable than the anime character, floundering through his “confession” that he wants to make shoes, and awkwardly irritated by his mum acting younger than he is. With Yukino, played by Akari Nakagawa, Takao inspires her to act younger than her age, too. We don’t see her idolised through Takao’s eyes as she in the anime, but shown as a buddy he can tease, a partner in their shared crime of skiving off. The play’s only villain – a character who’s barely mentioned in the anime – is never on stage at all, but a toxic, laddish voice on a phone, the spirit of Andrew Tate.
I’m sometimes irritated when stage versions of other media pump in extra jokes, but I was thankful for the funny lines added here. There were many audience laughs at the performance, with Takao’s mum Reimi injecting much humour, as when she casually mentions that she Googled the actress girlfriend of her elder son, but couldn’t find anything about her. I was startled to hear profanities in the script, including f-bombs, but that may be just because how alien they seemed from Shinkai’s anime.
Soon after the interval, there are some very unnatural bits of dialogue – one provoked an audible audience giggle. They were the biggest clunkers in the play, taken from internal reflections in the book. But the denouement is good, with a pointed change to how the film staged a moment of emotional release (the original moment involved a stairway). I do like how the film does it, but I find I need to consciously defend that moment every time I see it, and some viewers will find the change a great improvement.
The Garden of Words runs at the Park Theatre until 9th September.