The Garden of Words is my personal favourite Makoto Shinkai film; I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it at a random BFI Anime Film Festival, many years ago, and love re-watching it on occasion (which is rare for me, but also easy to do as the film is only 45 minutes long). So, in 2020, when it was announced that the company behind the highly enjoyable stage adaptation of Princess Mononoke was going to do a stage adaptation of the same film, I was very excited, and happily purchased tickets for its debut. Sadly, COVID hit, with theatres around the world being shut down, and only the most popular of heavy hitters like Harry Potter and The Cursed Child and Les Misérables managing to survive post-pandemic. Smaller plays were hit the hardest however, and as such, The Garden of Words was cancelled the same year before it could debut, with no word of its returning. But in summer 2023, it was announced that the play would come back for a limited run from 10th August to 9th September at the Park Theatre, with some of the cast and crew remaining from its initial 2020 announcement. According to the director (Alexandra Rutter) in a piece provided with the show’s programme, the show has been nine years in the making and has grown considerably since it was first announced in 2020, with Susan Momoko Hingley being co-adapter as well. So how did Whole Hog Theatre, in collaboration with Tokyo’s Anime stage production specialists Nelke Planning, bring Makoto Shinkai’s story to life on stage?
Takao Akizuki is a 15-year-old student who seems on the surface to be a slacker, as he’s always skipping class when it rains, and seems to never pay attention to the world around him. But he has a passion for one thing: making shoes; he longs to make women’s shoes as a living and plans to get good enough to get out of his troubled home life and into a specialist school. One day, when he skips school due to the rain, and ends up taking shelter in a Japanese garden, he meets a mysterious woman named Yukari Yukino who’s simply drinking beer and eating chocolate. The pair form an unlikely connection, and as the months roll by and the rainy season fades, their lives collide in a way they never expected.
The original movie is only 45 minutes long, but the stage play is 1 hour and 45 minutes, so that’s 1 hour of extra material added to the story. Some of that time is taken up by scene transitions, using poetry (specifically tanka) to reflect feelings from the characters whilst also expanding on Yukino’s literature background and the poetry that connects her to Takao. There’s also minor puppetry at work (provided by Mikayla Teodoro) and props to illustrate the constant presence of the rain, especially the downpour that happens in the second act which I thought was really creative. But that’s not enough to fill to the whole hour, so what is it filled with? A lot more side characters and their development. I did always appreciate the original movie’s slim runtime and focus, but that’s not to say there isn’t any material that couldn’t be expanded on. There are tons of side characters that get very little screen time, and many passing mentions of feelings and story crumbs (like Takao’s mother hardly being at home due to seeing younger men) that are left unexplored. So, it makes perfect sense for the play to take these nuggets and run with them. The new story elements that are further expanded (outside of the two main characters) are Reimi (Takao’s mum) and Shota (Takao’s brother)’s broken family, with Shota’s fiancée Rika getting more backstory too. Then there’s Soichiro (teacher and Yukari’s ex-boyfriend) who bounces between reeling from his breakup and handling trouble for the school he works at. And finally, arguably the most expanded of all, is Shoko Aizawa, who in the movie was the female bully who started the rumours that have catastrophic consequences later but nothing else of note. In the play, however, she’s introduced much earlier on and given almost co-lead status with Takao and Yukari as we see her descend from a regular teenager with insecurities to a spiteful, broken girl who ends up damaging one person’s life for petty reasons. I found her arc to be compelling, and it helped a lot that the actress Shoko Ito brought a nuanced and captivating performance to the character too. Her new story explores themes of internalised misogyny and homophobia, whilst also criticizing things like the ‘purity culture’ of Japan and how girls are often pressured into self-harming behaviours from outside parties. Her actions at the end happen the same way, but the new context allows us to see how she got to this point, rather than just being a generic girl bully like she is in the movie. The other expanded stories also are of note: Rika, the fiancée of Takao’s brother, showed some cheeky humour in the original film, so it’s nice to see it expanded in the play, as she and Shota start their lives together, and he tries to fix the broken family dynamic between his mum and Takao. Soichiro Ito had the least amount added to his character, compared to the others, but he did get one humorous scene within a coffee shop, which everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy.
The cast of The Garden of Words is very small, with seven actors in total, so all of them also serve as stagehands as well, even the two main leads move around in the dark to help set up the next set piece and such. Whilst I hand it to all of them for mucking in and bringing the story to life on-stage, it’s the lack of other extras that I also found the weakest part of the play. Like the movie, there’s a few flashbacks (like Takao remembering the first time he fell in love with shoes, on his mother’s birthday when she got a pair) but there’s even more in the stage adaptation, and because of that, a lot of the actors also play minor parts like students as the school, passengers on the train, etc. But due to the speed of going from present day to flashback, or even just one set piece to another, it’s very common for one actor to simply twirl on stage and suddenly be a new character, without a costume change. For example, Takao’s mother also plays one of the random female students at school, and many times the audience is expected to just switch as quickly as she does and run with her new role. Just adding a blazer, or school shirt, would have been enough to help with the illusion, but often there’s not. When it comes to the flashbacks, they flood the stage with an orange light to represent the past, but again due to the super-fast pace of the switch from present to past, I found myself getting quite confused in places. I have seen the film, so I managed to recalibrate and catch up with what the play was doing eventually, but one member of my party, who had not seen the film, was very confused on who was related to whom and what was happening when.
I’ve yet to talk about the main leads and their story, that’s because 90% of their story is the same as the movie, the same goes for the score (provided by Mark Choi) which is reminiscent of the original so a lot of the main couple’s story hits the same as the film. A lot of their scenes however have their banter expanded upon, and the chemistry between Hiroki Berrecloth (playing Takao in his stage debut) and Aki Nakagawa (playing Yukari Yukino) was spot-on too. There’s also a lot of creative imagery used to illustrate the passing of the tanka words from one to another, and the iconic scene of Takao measuring Yukari’s feet is perfectly brought to the stage. When it comes to the ending scene however, for me it didn’t pack the same punch that it did in the movie, mostly due to the absent of a particular line in Yukari’s monologue that isn’t in the stage version, for whatever reason. The movie ending goes for a higher emotional gut-punch, but the stage version is subdued and melancholy, to fit more with the extra story titbits and theme expansions. It’s not a bad adaptation, just one that I didn’t connect with as much.
The Whole Hog Theatre have created an adaptation of an emotionally resonant movie that not only respects the original story but also expands it in excellent ways that do not feel bloated or unwarranted. I can’t personally recommend this for those who haven’t seen the movie, but if you love The Garden of Words then you’ll find much to love and digest about this stage of adaptation. I waited three years for this stage production and can say it was very much worth the wait. I look forward to seeing what anime/manga story that The Whole Hog Theatre will adapt next.
The Garden of Words is running at the Park Theatre from 10th August to 9th September 2023.