sitting here at my keyboard, trying to summon the words to describe
this great, magnificent little movie called Whisper of the Heart.
do you describe a movie that belongs to a genre that doesn’t
even exist in this country? Sometimes, I think it would just be
easier to trick someone into sitting down in the theatre, or the
TV, without even telling them what they were in for.
is just about the best coming-of-age story ever made, full of vigor
and wonder, full of the spark of youth. I certainly can’t
think of a film that’s as dizzyingly lovable and sincere as
Whisper of the Heart. I certainly can’t imagine anyone
walking away from this picture without feeling elated, eager to
grab as many friends as possible for another showing.
of the Heart tells the story of Shizuku, a 15-year-old girl
who is spending her last summer months before entering high school.
She’s studying hard for her entrance exams (required for Japanese
high schools), is intelligent and sincere, and also something of
a bookworm. Drowning in books, Shizuku fancies herself as a budding
writer, translating popular American songs for her friends; John
Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” fits in
as a thematic backdrop to much of the story (ironic that a royalties
dispute is preventing this film’s release in America).
is not a movie driven by plot, but about discovery and experience,
and learning to test oneself. There are romantic interests, but
nothing approaching the clichéd movie bits about proms and
popularity contests and envied jocks. These kids are stumbling around,
trying their best to make sense of their own emotions, and hurt
feelings are sometimes the inevitable result. There’s a subplot
involving Shizuku’s best friend, who receives letters from
one boy while secretly pining away for his friend, who doesn’t
know she exists. That boy, of course, has a crush on Shizuku, and
when it all comes to a head, the moment is tense, awkward. You feel
uncomfortable because, well, you were there yourself. If only more
movies were as honest.
Shizuku develops a tentative relationship with a boy who dreams
of building violins. He lives with his grandfather, a kindly old
man who repairs clocks and imparts words of wisdom about unrequited
loves. Here is where this movie becomes truly great. Many coming-of-age
films settle with the standard “follow your bliss” line,
but Whisper respects the audience too much for that. Parents invoke
the need to study and work hard, that you may be happier if you
follow your dreams, but there are also consequences. You will experience
failure - lost dreams, lost loves, lost moments - but this is also
a part of life.
of the Heart is directed by a man named Yoshifumi Kondo, who
most of you won’t recognize, but is actually one of the giants
of Japanese animation. He spent many years working alongside Hayao
Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, first with television programs like
World Masterpiece Theatre in the ‘70s, to Miyazaki’s
own Future Boy Conan series in 1978, to the many Studio
Ghibli films over the years. His own contributions may be less known
to Western eyes, but are equally invaluable.
marks his first, and only, time as a director. Kondo tragically
succumbed to cancer in 1998, a greater loss when you discover just
how accomplished and confident a filmmaker he really was. Working
alongside these two giants honed his skills to a razor perfection;
Kondo fits perfectly between Takahata’s realism and Miyazaki’s
dynamism. The result, here, is a picture that carries the best traits
of both. There is a great emphasis on slow shots, marvelously detailed
compositions, and a casual, leisurely pace. Scenes develop and build
on their own without ever feeling rushed. Everything is coated in
a natural realism.
certainly helps that Miyazaki wrote the script, adapting it from
a manga comic by Aoi Hiiragi, and largely adding in his own quirks
and insights. He has always been something of a romantic, and Whisper
of the Heart allows him to fully indulge in a side that he
only showed in bits and parts (notably Porco
Rosso, Castle in the Sky,
and Conan). One of my favorite scenes involves a fat cat
with a disdainful look (I’m reminded of Orson Welles for some
reason) who captures Suzuki’s attention. She follows the cat
throughout the city, across the trains, and over the hills to a
secluded antique store; it’s a sly tribute to My
Neighbor Totoro that makes you want to explore your own
marvels at how effectively Kondo maintains everything; you only
wish he were still alive, creating more great films. You sit, entranced,
at the whole experience; at watching this girl try to find herself
by writing a novel, at seeing a touching musical moment between
a happy couple that is quietly crashed by the boy’s grandfather
(a scene that gracefully destroys every Disney song-and-dance number
ever made). Looking into Shizuku’s imagination, as she’s
creating her stories, you know she’ll grow up perfectly fine.
She has an artist’s intuition for finding inspiration around
her, even if she isn’t consciously aware of it yet. Her intelligence
is respected, just as the audience’s is.
Ghibli, I think, are just about the only ones making animated films.
Takahata and Miyazaki have almost single-handedly invented the naturalist
style, inspired greatly by the Italian Neo Realists and Jean Renoir
and Yasujiro Ozu, expanding the boundaries of animation. They’ve
created a whole new class of filmmaking, and you only want more;
you feel as if a light has been turned on in your head, and you’re
discovering the movies for the very first time.