Grace Han – Back to Front: Animating Melodrama in Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words (winner)

The late twentieth century witnessed multiple reconsiderations of the reiterated filmic melodrama in cinema studies. To some, the filmic melodrama stands as a poignant example of women’s film (Williams p. 2); to others, it represents the neo-Marxist liberation of bourgeois struggle (Gledhill pp. 6-8); and still to others, it exists as a mode of expression, grappling with Manichean dynamics of good and evil (Brooks pp. 12-13). Thomas Elsaesser’s seminal essay, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama” is perhaps the most formally concise of these. In his analysis of 1940s and 50s film, he claims that the melodrama highlights “lighting, montage, visual rhythm, décor, style of acting, music – that is, on the ways the mise-en-scène translates character into action… and action into gesture and dynamic space” (Elsaesser p. 76). According to Elsaesser, the essence of the filmic melodrama is in its externalization, as it seeks to visually express the sociological constraints of domestic life (p. 78). Linda Williams furthers this explanation of the melodrama, as she pits the melodrama in contra to narrative film. Indeed, the exteriorization of the interior can be “marked by ‘lapses’ in realism, ‘excesses’ of spectacle and displays of primal, even infantile emotions, and by narratives that seem circular and repetitive” (Williams, “Film Bodies,” p. 3). These characteristics then – of interior in the exterior, of excess and spectacle – all build into the conditions of filmic melodramatic mode.

While the discussion of the filmic melodrama still remains very much alive, little to no text of the melodrama exists in animation studies. Perhaps the closest example can be found in sociological interpretations of Japanese animation, otherwise known as anime. When the economic bubble burst in the 1990s, the breakdown of job security, the hetero-normative family, and enterprise society sent nationwide waves of unemployment, homelessness, and ultimately loneliness (Allison pp. 22-37).  Susan J. Napier incorporates the historical phenomena into her own theory of anime, boldly stating that all anime falls into one of three rubrics: (1) pathological apocalypse; (2) controlled chaos; or (3) the elegiac (Napier pp. 30-31). While this approach does explain the art of loss, Napier only examines anime as a reflection of the national conscience rather than an art form. By politicizing anime, she overlooks the technical properties that the medium holds, and thereby does not detail the mode in which anime may express instability.

To address this gap within the literature, I build upon Elsaesser’s observation that the filmed melodrama externalizes internal emotions through visual elements, such as lighting and mise-en-scène (Elsaesser pp. 76-78). In the animated form, I argue the same occurs – only on a multiplanar scale. Multiplanarity, East Asian studies scholar Thomas Lamarre asserts, recalls the multi-layered nature inherent to animation production. As a result, animation – especially limited animation, like anime – uniquely boasts an “animetic machine,” in which the layers are open-composited and move independently of one another (Lamarre pp. 5-6). This discourages a consistent depth-of-field, and instead allows for continually shifting perspectives (pp. 32-37). Of course, anime may take on more cinematic tendencies; in the case of limited full animation, character movement is limited in favor of preserving background depth (p. 190). It can stray on the other end as well, however, reaching for the superflat — a nonhierarchical distribution of the elements that allows the eyes to “zigzag across the surface” for lack of perspective (p. 111). Multiplanarity, in other words, asserts a spectrum in which the viewer may perceive an animated figure to range from the animetic superflat to the fully animated cinematic.

This oscillation from limited full animation to the superflat is particularly evident in Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words (2013). The film follows aspiring shoemaker Takao Akizuki (Miyu Irino) and his blossoming relationship with classical Japanese literature teacher Yukari Yukino (Kana Hanazawa). They first meet one rainy morning in the Shinjuku Gyoen. They continue to reconvene there each rainy morning thereafter, growing closer over boxed lunches and poetry. However, once rainy season ends, the romance evaporates – until they stumble upon each other in school. There, their relationship as student and teacher becomes uncomfortably clear. Though they do confess their mutual love one stormy evening, they part ways, realizing that their age difference cannot permit their relationship to survive outside the garden.

 Garden of Words aptly portrays the rollercoaster of sexual tension oft-seen in melodrama. Indeed, I argue that the animated medium further emphasizes the melodramatic mode, as the individually moving layers of the animetic machine mirror the characters’ relationship. The foremost background, the Shinjuku Gyoen, underscores Takao and Yukari’s mutual yearning yet inability to interact. The rain extends the spectacle of the melodrama, as it highlights Yukari’s struggle to navigate through moral confusion. Only in the superflat do Takao and Yukari temporarily live upon the same plane, tasting the “happy ending” that the multiplanar structure could not provide. In this way, animation not only portrays the melodramatic mode in narrative, but also emphasizes it more through the technical properties inherent to animation.

Layer 1: Shinjuku Gyoen (Home)

By labeling Garden of Words as another multiplanar, animetic machine, I claim that Shinkai does deploy multiple planes of depth in his garden scenes. The planes can be roughly categorized into three primary layers: the garden, the rain, and the human characters. Perhaps most noticeable is the traditional Japanese gardens of the Shinjuku Gyoen, the backdrop for the majority of the film. In this, I argue that Shinkai uses the scenery to present an ambivalent ground – both a binder and a divider – between Takao and Yukari. The Shinjuku Gyoen echoes the domestic space of the melodrama, sanctioning yet interfering with the Takao and Yukari’s budding romance as an exterior space to express repressed emotions.

The film first establishes the Shinjuku Gyoen’s all-enveloping secrecy in the opening sequence. In a montage, the film cuts back and forth between screeching train wheels and distant birdsong, contrasting hyper-urban Tokyo to the peace of the Shinjuku Gyoen. The sequence ends with a slow zoom out and tilt when Takao crosses the bridge into the Japanese gardens. Here, he melts into the greenery; save for a single silhouette walking along the bridge, Takao becomes almost unrecognizable. The vibrant greens overtake the faded grays of the distance, rendering the background city irrelevant. Indeed, the Shinjuku Gyoen resembles an exteriorized interiority, as a pseudo-sanctuary for Takao and Yukari to express their emotions that is literally separate from the world around them. Similar to the chiiki no cha no ma (“regional living rooms”), the gazebo within the Shinjuku Gyoen serves as a public space for private conversation as the couple continuously reconvenes there on rainy mornings (Allison p. 170). The Shinjuku Gyoen thus serves as a space of connection promoting verbal-physical interaction between two lonely souls in the city space. Though the Shinjuku Gyoen rests in the center of the city, it is contained within its own world, its own plane.

The Shinjuku Gyoen, however, is a neutral plane; it isolates as much as it invites. When Yukari and Takao meet for the first time, they are immediately separated by the overlaid Gyoen. The private nature of their encounter is preserved; indeed, the film continues to peek at the couple from behind the gazebo, showered by foregrounded foliage in weak disguise. At the same time, however, the Shinjuku Gyoen divides the two. The bars of the gazebo partition the screen out to each individual person. Crawling vines emphasize the asymmetry of the divided frame. Echoing the filmic melodrama, “the frame of respectability [is] so sharply defined that the range of ‘strong’ actions is limited […] the characters are, so to speak, one another’s sole referent, there is no world outside to be acted on, no reality that could be defined or assumed unambiguously” (Elsaesser p. 79). The Gyoen thus serves as both a secretive haven and a divisive space, as it allows the characters to safely convene – but also ruthlessly isolates the two at the same time. The mise-en-scène parallels the couple’s inability to communicate honestly with one another.

A similar visual parallel can be seen in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film, All that Heaven Allows. The film follows an upper-class widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and her growing romantic feelings for her younger gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). The storyline is similar; as Ron and Cary fall in love, they struggle to maintain their forbidden romance in the face of public disapproval. Like Garden of Words, the mise-en-scène too reflects their muted mutual interest. When the two first meet, for example, the umbrella completely confines Cary into one third of the frame, whilst enshrouding Ron in the shadows of the nearby tree. Furthermore, each element can be seen in deep focus. Each item is very deliberately placed as an obstacle in each other’s path and is shot straight on at eye-level. Quite plainly, the frame is divided; however, the deep focus places Ron, Cary, and the picnic table all in the same space, coexisting in the same closed-composited plane.

 Garden of Words, however, pushes its multiplanar nature in its excessive use of shallow focus and relevant movement. Returning to a scene of Takao and Yukari in the gazebo, the foregrounded foliage remains in shallow focus. Though not visible in the still, each layer moves independently from one another: the grass mechanically sways; a tree branch waves; Takao and Yukari stutter. Garden of Words fully embraces cinematic depth with independently moving layers, gleefully showing the capabilities of open-composited, computer generated imagery. By doing so, Garden of Words deliberately draws attention to its multiplanar nature – and in that way, the Shinjuku Gyoen’s deliberate ability to intervene as much as it encourages Takao and Yukari’s romance.

The Shinjuku Gyoen thus serves as the fundamental center of the melodrama found in Garden of Words. The Shinjuku Gyoen functions as a uniquely private space within a public park. However, through the film’s multiplanar production, the mise-en-scène reveals that the Gyoen is just as willing to interfere as it is to protect. Slivers of nature grow in between Takao and Yukari, symbolizing the inability for the two of them to verbally communicate their true emotional state to one another. This is all the more apparent with the film’s continued use of shallow focus and independently moving layers, accentuating the deliberation of their insurmountable romance. The couple’s restrained emotions visibly reflect in their environment, as the neutral Shinjuku Gyoen is only so willing to tell.

Layer 2: Rain (Excess)

Just as the Shinjuku Gyoen comments on the couple’s restrained emotions, the rain reflects their moral confusion. This sense of moral ambiguity is central to the melodramatic mode. Film scholar Peter Brooks describes this as the moral occult, the “domain of spiritual forces and imperatives that is not clearly visible within reality, but which they believe to be operative there, and which demands to be uncovered, registered, articulated” (Brooks pp. 20-21). Japanese culture scholar Catherine Russell spins this in a more localized vein. She claims that the Japanese melodrama rests not on a choice between good and evil – as speculated in the Christian-based Manichean dilemma – but rather between giri and ninjo, communal obligation and individual desire (Russell pp. 146-147). In all cases of moral dilemma, melodrama scholar Christine Gledhill acknowledges that melodrama seeks not to simply tell a story, but to outline a more “morally legible” world (Gledhill pp. 32-33).

 Garden of Words wrestles with morality within Takao and Yukari’s relationship. True to the melodramatic form, the film pivots around a single decision that rests within the woman’s hands: how far will Yukari allow their relationship to continue? As the older romantic partner by twelve years – and a teacher at Takao’s school, to boot – Yukari is given the responsibility to reject Takao’s presumably naive emotions. However, Yukari’s overwhelming depression complicates the dilemma. As extreme ostracism at her workplace brings on a taste disorder, a failed relationship, and even unemployment, she holds high personal stakes. By keeping Takao by her side, she may alleviate her loneliness; however, by rejecting his feelings, she and Takao may return to a student-teacher relationship, pushing herself to suffer alone once more.

While Yukari struggles to make her decision, the rain mirrors her carnal desires. This becomes apparent when she first addresses Takao in tanka: “A faint clap of thunder / cloudy skies / will rain come? / If so, will you stay here with me?” Following the recitation, a streak of lightning illuminates the continuous onslaught of rain. The rain here represents both bodily excess – of genital fluid – and environmental excess. This plays into the spectacle of melodrama; as Williams notes, melodrama engages in the spectacle of the (usually female) body caught in a highly vulnerable, emotional state (Williams p. 4). In this way, the uncontrollable rain visually manifests Yukari’s uncontrollable sexual interest in Takao and is all the more illuminated through their first tanka exchange.

Following Williams’ analysis of the female body in excess, I argue that the rain too is symbolic of Yukari’s own depression. Like silent tears, the rain bars her from Takao, referencing her continued isolation from society. After all, the characters stay relatively dry in the multiplanar machine. As a separate virtual plane, the water does not slide off their umbrellas; instead, it simply trickles onto the ground. While it is evident that Yukari deeply longs for a companion, the rain’s noncommittal presence indicates her own hesitation. Yukari remains sated, content with Takao’s company rather than his physical touch. In this way, the rain recreates a sacred space for the two, what Russell claims “unspeakable realm of desire” – a sacred space in which a couple may express their interior state through their environs (Russell pp. 144-152).

While the rain conveys Yukari’s restrained emotions, the couple’s true reunion only occurs during the dry season. Unable to wait any longer for rain, the two incidentally stumble upon each other in the Shinjuku Gyoen. Shrouded by the foliage, Takao recites the second half of the tanka to her. Just as he finishes, the Taiwanese Pavilion slides center screen. As one of the few remaining structures remaining in the garden from the early twentieth century, the Taiwanese Pavilion commemorates the wedding of the Showa Emperor Hirohito. As a gift from a Japanese envoy based in Taiwan, the Pavilion recalls the marriage between not just the Showa Emperor and Empress, but also between the once-unreachable imperial bloodline and the common people (Hastings p. 245). The Taiwanese Pavilion thus maintains not only the sex-laden symbolism of fertility of the rain, but also references a sort of consummation – a plane in which Takao and Yukari may both coexist as lovers. Moreover, the Pavilion also stands as a cyclical gesture to the past. It highlights the historical (re)union of couples: of the Emperor and Empress; of Takao and Yukari; of the two tankas.

The subsequent mutual confession – and moreover, Yukari’s own wellspring of passion – swells into a summer storm. The excruciating wait for rain finally ends; instead of aching for one another from afar, the rain gives the couple all the more excuse for intimacy. In a slow pan, the two finally stand, framed by the poles of the gazebo. However, rather than stand side-by-side by choice, they are almost cornered, entrapped by the incoming deluge. True to the melodrama, the couple cannot escape their fate. They must at least acknowledge their growing attachment to one another. With this, the borders between planes have forcibly collapsed. The rain and the couple are one; so too, are Yukari’s will and her decision.

Overall, the rain serves another plane for the melodrama to shine through. The rain serves as the physical manifestations of Yukari’s decision-making through morally ambiguous waters, going so far as to even function as a form of bodily excess. As the film progresses, Yukari’s wish to grow closer to Takao becomes clearer; in correlation, the storms grow more intense. Only when the two of them fully get soaked does the film imply that there is no going back – that Yukari has finally made her choice to embrace the full extent of her longing.

Layer 3: Superflat (Connection)

Though the planes intertwine in the rain, the couple is still not entirely free of their multiplanar constraints until they move towards the superflat. In the animetic machine, the superflat is the dehierarchized plane; with no one-point perspective, the superflat allows the eye to travel across the surface (Lamarre p.111, 116). Anthropologist Thomas Looser describes the superflat as “a kind of placeless place, a space without any real spaces of difference… it is a subject-less, spaceless space without limit or end” (p. 98). In the superflat, each layer is its own independent point of origin; hierarchy and perspective cease to exist (ibid). As to its effect, Japanese media and literature scholar Christopher Bolton succinctly sums up the superflat in a single phrase: “[there is] something simultaneously empty and liberating about this art” (Bolton p. 53).

And liberating it is, at least for Takao and Yukari in their final confession. Like Elsaesser’s proverbial “vertiginous drop in emotional temperature,” the two finally reach emotional apotheosis when Yukari declares her love and loss in a bout of hysteria (Elsaesser p. 83). For the first time in the film, the two successfully reach the superflat; the stairwell no longer follows the rules of perspective, nor does the rest of the mise-en-scène. With the slight Dutch tilt and haphazardly falling rain, the superflat negates any sense of stability and societal restraint. This allows the two of them to finally make physical contact without any physical barrier; they may finally touch undisturbed. In this way, the superflat promises a brighter future: one in which Takao and Yukari may live in a uniform plane as lovers, not strangers.

The superflat becomes even more pronounced with the camera movement emulated by computer-generated imagery. The revolution reveals the sheer proximity of the Shinjuku Gyoen to Yukari’s apartment building, as it peeks out from behind. In this lingering image, the superflat disintegrates distance as the buildings sidle up against the garden. Shu Kuge, another scholar on Shinkai, comments “spatial distance can connect people by separating them; they share the distance that separates. Such spatial continuity affirms the fact that they live in one large world instead of separate ones” (Kuge p. 253). In the same way, Garden of Words underscores the proximity of distance. By direct juxtaposition, Shinkai suggests that the film finally comes full circle. Takao and Yukari no longer have to return to the Shinjuku Gyoen for sanctuary. Instead, they may enjoy their relationship in the privacy of a legitimate domestic space: Yukari’s home.

The superflat’s optimistic outlook outwardly denies the melodramatic-multiplanar nostalgia. Williams notes that the typical “weepie” of the 1940s and 50s refers back to the golden past; it glorifies nostalgia and an ultimate return to one’s origins (Williams p. 11). The superflat, on the other hand, projects Japan into the future. As artist Takashi Murakami observes, the superflat is the postmodern negation of postwar and post-Occupation trauma (Bolton p. 53). Lamarre concurs, agreeing that the superflat fits into modernization theory. The superflat, after all, seeks to move Japan beyond its “temporal lag” behind the West (Lamarre pp. 116-119). In other words, the superflat searches for a sort of hyper-future – covering up its internal reliance on multiplanar structure in favor of almost Marxist, horizontal distributive field (p. 122).

The fluctuation between the futuristic optimism of the superflat and the traditional restraints the multiplanar extends beyond The Garden of Words. Masaaki Yuasa’s Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2017) reflects this push for serendipitous connection. In a dazzling display of Senpai’s (Gen Hoshino) romantic pursuit of the starry-eyed Girl With Black Hair (Kana Hanazawa), the film captures the disconnect between fantasy and reality. When the two converse for the first time, the multiplanar room lays awash in muted tones. This disagrees sharply with Senpai’s previous fantasy – wherein he and the Girl float in a sea of pastel blues and yellows. The stark color contrast alone is telling of the disparity between the fantastic superflat to the grounded clumsiness of the multiplanar. Above all, however, the film stresses the overwhelming urge to make a connection. Just as in the Garden of Words, the superflat visually rids the societal hierarchies inherent to their relationship – and instead allows the characters to exist as equals in the same plane. Only in the superflat can the animated characters overcome the rigid structures of multiplanarity, and in turn overcome the tragic ending of the melodrama.

Conclusion (The Future?)

All in all, animation’s multiplanar nature boasts its primary contribution to melodrama studies. Animation’s ability to independently deconstruct each of its layers mirrors the deliberate mise-en-scène of mid-twentieth century American cinema, as they each may be used to exteriorize the interior. Such is seen in Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words (2013). This film unravels the suppressed emotions found in the cinematic multiplanar in a grand confession in the animetic superflat, affirming that a happy ending may only be achieved in total planar unity.

The multiplanar first enforces the constraints of the melodrama by foregrounding the background. The Shinjuku Gyoen, for example, both encloses and excludes Takao and Yukari from each other. While the Gyoen maintains their secrets, it also deliberately divides the mise-en-scène; the two cannot coexist within the same frame uninterrupted by a branch, a leaf, or another extension of nature. The rain continues to fuel the moral ambiguity of their relationship, reflecting Yukari’s internal desires. The constant rain emulates female bodily excess, as it depends upon Yukari’s own determination to reciprocate Takao’s confession.

The layers finally meld together into the superflat, allowing Takao and Yukari to access the same space at once. The two reach their emotional climax in the superflat; liberated from societal expectation, Yukari unleashes her true feelings into floating space. I argue that this scene converts the infectious optimism of the superflat further defuses the nostalgia of the multiplanar melodrama, looking to a horizontally-aligned future instead of the vertical past. Thus, the oscillation: between multiplanar and superflat; between structure and unity; between past and future. The animated melodrama teeters on all these spectra, slipping through definitions of multiplanarity. After all, the animated melodrama is not simply a genre. It continues to exist, ever changing, but still so consistent, as a mode.


Grace Han is a PhD student in Art History (Film and Media Studies focus) at Stanford University. Prior to her studies at Stanford, she graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art (MA with Distinction, 2020) and UNC Chapel Hill (BA with Honors, 2018) with degrees in the History of Art / Art History. She has previously participated in the Society for Animation Studies’ Emerging Researchers Seminar, presented a co-directed short to Cannes through Campus Movie Fest, and was selected for Cineuropa’s GoCritic! program at Animafest Zagreb. Currently, her research considers the overarching theme of ‘animation and the everyday’ – thinking through animated mediations in slice-of-life, cybernetic cultures, and emerging technologies.



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