‘The Garden of Words’ follows on from the RSC’s hugely successful ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ as a screen-to-stage adaptation of Japanese anime – indeed, many of this production’s cast were also in the latter. However, the translation between mediums isn’t as seamless here.
The play is adapted by Susan Momoko Hingley and director Alexandra Rutter from Makoto Shinkai’s 2013 film. Takao Akizuki (Hiroki Berrecloth) is a lonely 15-year-old, neglected by his mum after his dad abandons their family and with a distracted older brother about to move in with his girlfriend. Takao dreams of being a shoemaker.
One day, bunking off school in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Takao meets Yukari Yukino (Aki Nakagawa). They gradually form a connection. Unbeknownst to him, she is a teacher at his school who has been falsely accused of inappropriate behaviour with a student. She, too, is at a crossroads in her life.
Where this production definitely succeeds is its atmosphere. It’s a visually striking evocation of animation. Designer Cindy Lin’s set mixes changing video projections and practical elements to gorgeous effect. Dangling strands resembling shredded paper gesture at the Man’yosha poetry underpinning the narrative.
Further bolstered by composer Mark Choi’s lushly wistful score, the aural panorama of Nicola T Chang’s sound design and Rajiv Pattani’s stylised lighting, Tokyo itself becomes the show’s most fully realised character, reproduced on stage like a heightened memory. It’s a rich backdrop for the story’s themes of longing, love and painful change in the face of social disconnection.
The problem is that we don’t get the same sense of fluidity and wholeness from the many other characters whose stories overlap. Berrecloth – who makes his stage debut here – and Nakagawa have the through-line to forge an affectingly tentative relationship. But a swirl of other issues, from alcoholism to coercive teenage relationships, are compressed into jarring simplicity. Susan Momoko Hingley suffers from this as Takao's mum.
The net impression is one of too many gaps – of something missing here both in terms of plot and, importantly, emotional nuance. For a show that pivots on language, the script – which also draws on Shinkai’s subsequent novelisation of his film – often feels overly perfunctory as it tries to encompass everyone crowding the stage. This is a beautiful but flawed adaptation. A more streamlined version could truly blossom.