Studio Ghibli Collection: Whisper of the Heart

January 4, 2005 on 9:28 pm | In Whisper of the Heart | 3 Comments

Excellence resides in the hearts of the animators at Studio Ghibli. Whisper of the Heart (literal title: If you listen closely) is the Studio Ghibli film not directed by Takahata Isao or Miyazaki Hayao. Kondo Yoshifumi took control of this project, and would have been likely to produce more excellent works had he not passed away three years after the completion of this one.

Whisper of the Heart is one of those brilliant films for which no description comes easily. Tsukishima Shizuku is about to enter high school. When she “should” be studying, she reads books. Shizuku notices that someone named Amasawa Seiji has borrowed many of the books she reads before her. In Shizuku’s mind, Amasawa Seiji becomes an idealised model of dreaminess.
Shizuku comes to meet a boy who turns out to be Seiji but neglects to mention this fact for some time. Seiji is dedicated to the creation of violins, and wishes to go to Italy to apprentice and find if he has talent. This inspires Shizuku to write a story based upon Baron, a cat doll from the antique store owned by Seiji’s grandfather.

Shizuku’s struggle is likely to resonate with people who have attempted self-expression. She is an “unpolished precious stone”, with the film revealing the encouraging message that not everything has to be perfect right out. Mastery can take years, and instead of frustration one should feel pride in their work. This is an important message, and encouraging. It is certainly better than telling children that they “ain’t got nothin’, so don’t bother tryin'”. It’s not really moralising, so much as it is character building. While characters sometimes complain about their preaching, nothing really comes across as annoyingly preachy.
The film is capped by a ridiculous, overly ideal ending, but this does not matter. The point at which it leaves is quite beautiful, in a nice way. It is unbelievable, but this is in no way an issue. The joy that it instills in the heart of man is well worth it despite any impracticalities associated.

Miyazaki scripted Whisper of the Heart, but Kondo is given more than ample space to express himself. This feels like no other Studio Ghibli film, despite their uniform character design. Shizuku is a character that tries to throw herself into stories, such as following a stray cat in the hope that it will lead her to a new world. In a way, it does: she discovers the World Emporium, a shop that is practically overflowing with inspiration.

Kondo has no difficulty in letting big moments carry the viewer away; there is a whole segment devoted to singing the movie’s theme that starts out uncertainly and grows and grows until there is some sort of magic in the air, and it’s almost sad to see it end. This scene prospers due to a lack of editing and the characters’ refusal to be shy. This is definitely a highlight of the film.

There is another point where-in the World Emporium owner fixes a “Porco Rosso” clock and takes the time to tell Shizuku the tale behind the clock – interesting stuff not related to the plot but somehow still an integral part of the film. Due to the focus on Shizuku at all times, this does not bear the burden of making the film too sprawling and hard to follow. If anything, it becomes more personal.

Kondo has some interesting visual ideas, particularly the best symbol of death ever that doesn’t actually end with a death. The story that Shizuku writes based around Baron shows up in several scenes, and not only is it an interesting story but it is presented in an incredible way, like a sort of jewelled version of the film. As excerpts it works really well, not having much to do with the story at hand, but frequently giving Shizuku inspiration which is quite elating.

The film’s theme is “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It gets the movie off to a bad start – Olivia Newton-John singing an anime theme, man! – But as Miyazaki transforms the song into Japanese, and the lyrics more appropriate to teenaged girls, it becomes personal and a huge part of the film’s feel. There’s also a cynical version of the song named “Concrete Roads” that seems quite funny coming out of the mouth of a teenaged girl but would sound really quite bad coming from Miyazaki himself. Times like these make one glad for ciphers. Nomi Yuji’s score is practically never ending, and really quite inspirational every step of the way – a real companion for Shizuku.

Whisper of the Heart is an easy film that promotes a feeling in the end. It’s very hard to come out of it not feeling good, due to its delightful resonance.

Studio Ghibli Collection playing at the Valhalla and Chauvel cinemas until January 16 2005.

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