Sunday, June 5, 2011

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart's original Japanese name is Mimi wo Sumaseba, or "If you listen closely". It's an adaptation of a manga by the same name, directed by the late Yoshifumi Kondo. The screenplay is written by Hayao Miyazaki. This is one of Studio Ghibli's finest character-driven stories ever told.

We follow the simple-minded Shizuku Tsukishima who enjoys delving into fantasy novels and the like. She's in junior high and doesn't know what to do with her life, worried about high school but not about boys. She has a knack for writing stories and lyrics, sharing them with her friends and best friend Yuko Harada. One charming scene features the two singing Shizuku's adaptation of Whisper of the Heart's theme song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" together after school.

Shizuku notices at the library that someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all of the books that she's interested in. This leads her to believe that this Amasawa has the same liking of fantasy literature as her, so she starts to wonder who he is. Kondo and Miyazaki craft the story so that we meet Seiji early on, but Shizuku doesn't realize he's the one and only until late in the film. We all know first impressions are the most important, and according to Shizuku, Seiji's a jerk.

Much of the Whisper of the Heart's story is crafted by Shizuku's adventurous personality. One day while she's riding the train she notices a cat on board... A very fat cat.

This cat has his own adventurous qualities and leaves the train at the same stop as Shizuku's. She follows him all around a certain part of Tokyo, climbing hills until she reaches a neighborhood she's never been to before. He leads her to an antique shop where she meets Seiji's grandfather Mr. Nishi. Kondo uses a nice frame within a frame shot that captures their faces through one of his antique clocks.

Down below the shop is a woodworking room where Seiji and other students craft violins with their own hands. This leads to a beautiful and heartwarming scene between Seiji playing the violin and Shizuku singing lyrics from Take Me Home, Country Road. Mr. Nishi and his friends show up to round out a small band of fun.

Shizuku is in junior high and things can be tough for her. Although boys weren't on her mind, things soon change with Seiji. Whisper of the Heart deals with teenage crushes and relationships, bringing up feelings of nostalgia from days of old. Shizuku lives with her mom, dad, and sister in a small and cluttered apartment. Cramped inside such a small place can create tension between family members, which is another theme we can relate to.

Seiji knows what he wants to do with his life and become a professional luthier. I don't want to give certain plot elements away, but this inspires Shizuku to go forth writing her first novella. This is so important because while Shizuku's life does not feature any magical fantasies, we see segments of her story animated. Inside Mr. Nishi's antique shop is a statue of a dressed cat called Baron; something Shizuku takes a liking to when learning the figure's history. She uses Baron in her story, but this isn't the only place the Baron shows up in Ghibli's history. The film "The Cat Returns" is based off of Baron where he originally appeared in Whisper of the Heart. Isn't that neat?

Some things that always impress me in Studio Ghibli's works and anime in general are the painstaking attention to details and the beauty of hand-painted animation. Whisper of the Heart looks beautiful and I can only give props to the animators for their hard work. Take for example this scene where Shizuku is looking for the stray cat I mentioned earlier. She looks so small in a city that's so big. When I first watched this scene I thought "wow, this was all done by hand!"

Beyond the visual beauty of Whisper of the Heart is its inner story beauty. We are essentially seeing a chunk of Shizuku's life and what happens around her. It's all done with so much heart it could only come from Miyazaki's screenplay. I really cared for the characters and felt different emotions for them throughout the plot. In the end though, the relationship that forms between Shizuku and Seiji and what they each realize in their lives is something incredibly special.

From what I understand, Whisper of the Heart is not as popular as other Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or Totoro. This is really too bad, because it looks at normal human nature and the animators bring so much life into their characters. If a film makes you happy or sad or worried about its characters, then everyone who's worked on it has done their best to touch your heart.

The saddest thing about Whisper of the Heart is the fact that its director, Yoshifumi Kondo, passed away of a ruptured aneurysm in 1998. Kondo was experienced, working as an animator, character designer, and supervising animator for Ghibli over the years. He showed so much promise in Whisper of the Heart that Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki thought Kondo to be Ghibli's directorial successor. But as Takahata mentioned in his eulogy for Kondo, " I am sure that your work will continue to live, be loved by people, and influence people" (from This is most certainly true with Whisper of the Heart, because in discovering it 16 years after its completion, I am influenced to want to inspire the imagination just as Kondo has.

-Jared C.

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