Takao Akizuki and Yukari Yukino meet by chance, on a rainy day under a shelter in a local garden. He is a 15-year-old who aspires to be a shoemaker and skips school when it’s raining to work on his designs. She is in her late 20s, trying to escape issues at work that are heavily affecting her emotionally. Both find the garden a safe, peaceful place and eventually find in each other the motivation to move on, even when a revelation about their mutual connections changes their perspectives on who they are to each other. That’s the premise of The Garden of Words, a new play co-adapted by Susan Momoko Hingley and Alexandra Rutter and based on the 2013 anime film of the same name.

It’s a story about loneliness, the challenges of maturing, and human connections, with shoe-making a metaphor for the two characters helping each other learn how to walk on their own, even when it seems hard to do so. Unfortunately, none of this translates well to the stage, and we’re left missing most of the core sentiments and emotions that the film evokes.

With stage design (by Cindy Lin) utilising a series of elements to try and reflect the source material’s visual identity – rain and poetry projections, a background that changes from the city skyline to the garden and back, and even puppetry – it’s clear that there is an effort to mirror the film while shaping its own identity as a play. But it often gets lost in symbolism and backstories that don’t support the meanings it should be conveying. Takao and Yukari’s age difference, for example, intends to show how maturing is not always glamorous and linear, it can feel disjointed and disorderly, where, at times, teenagers seem to be ahead of their time and adults may feel like children. While Takao is written as very mature for his age, Yukari doesn’t seem lost and helpless, so the important contrast is not quite there. Granted, it’s a tricky one to adapt when the film mostly focuses on two characters meeting at the same place every day, and this adaptation tries to shine a spotlight on side characters to add layers to what could seem like a monotonous storyline otherwise, but that’s where things get blurry. It’s as if we’re watching it from behind a curtain of rain, not sure which of the figures behind it we should be paying attention to. They have expanded the story beyond the two main characters in an attempt to modernise it by exploring technology, romantic relationships, and family issues, but it ends up not landing anywhere. That also robs the main characters from spending more time together, and forming a strong enough bond to make what should be an incredibly emotional ending have any impact.

And speaking of rain, the main motif in the story, it’s a shame how it plays such a background role in this. The rain is supposed to have a reverse role here: where it usually represents sorrow and bad days, in this story, it’s a sign of hope, it’s lively and protective. It means Takao can pursue his dream and Yukari can see the one person who is helping her find comfort in troubled times. It lifts up our characters and pushes them forward, but it doesn’t seem to have the same power in this adaptation.

The music, by Mark Choi, and the sound design, by Nicola T. Chang, are gorgeous. They’re the closest we get to the emotional effect we should expect from this play. Everything else seems to be superficially touched upon and I’m wondering if a different perspective on the script could’ve done the trick, where it leans more on the metaphors and motifs that make the movie so eloquent.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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