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Ghibli Bits: WHISPER OF THE HEART

Ghibli Bits: WHISPER OF THE HEART

It recently struck me that Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli animation house, which is as beloved globally as any in the west, has a more focused creative eye than either Pixar or Disney, specifically because the bulk of the films the studio produced were directed by one of the two founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Of the 20 theatrical feature films Ghibli produced, nine were by Miyazaki and five were by Takahata, leaving only six to be directed by other people. It’s tempting to call these six films “lesser” Ghibli works, but there’s an undeniable magic to all of them, and they gave the world interesting directors, one of whom has even started his own animation studio. That’s what this short series, which we’re calling Ghibli Bits, will explore.

I’ve recently reviewed Ocean Waves, the 1993 Japanese TV movie that was the first thing Ghibli produced without neither Takahata nor Miyazaki, which I thought was visually stunning but lacked a bit of magic. Whisper of the Heart (1995), Ghibli’s first feature film without either of them at the helm, at least had the added nudge of Miyazaki writing the screenplay. In fact, for the most part, Whisper feels like a beautiful blend of the fairy tale sensibilities of Miyazaki and the magical realism of Takahata.

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It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, a longtime animation director for Ghibli (and who worked with both Miyazaki and Takahata on their various pre-Ghibli film and TV projects) who had long been touted as the heir apparent to helm the company once the founders retired. In essence, Whisper of the Heart was Kondō’s audition piece. However, tragically, Kondō died in 1998 at the age of 47 from an Aortic aneurysm said to be caused by overwork, an issue that Japanese society is still trying address. His animation direction of 1997’s Princess Mononoke was his final work for Ghibli and his death is reportedly what led to Miyazaki’s first announcement of retirement.

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With that sadness in mind, Whisper of the Heart seems like a particularly personal film, which Miyazaki wrote from a comic by Aoi Hiiragi. It’s a very deliberately paced adolescent love story about a bookish girl named Shizuku who is getting ready to take her high school entrance exam and begins to realize the same person–Seiji Amasawa–checked out all of her books from the library before her. As she tries to figure out who this boy is, she follows a strange cat who is inexplicably riding the train, and tracks it to an antique shop where the kindly owner is fixing a grandfather clock and has a strange, beautiful statue of a bipedal cat wearing a top hat and tails, which the owner calls “the Baron.” The owner’s grandson turns out to be Seiji Amasawa, and while he frustrates and angers Shizuku at the beginning, they begin to fall in cute middle-school love. She inspires him to write a fantasy book about the Baron during the two months in Italy he spends apprenticing to become a violin maker, even to the detriment of her schoolwork.

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Those are the broad strokes of the movie, but Whisper of the Heart is a far more than just that. Earlier I said the movie felt like a perfect blend of both Miyazaki and Takahata’s styles; it feels very of a piece with Takahata’s Only Yesterday, a movie about an adult remembering her past in school. Likewise, it evokes Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, which has a similar story of a young person finding their way in the world theme but with obvious magical overtones. Whisper of the Heart is firmly grounded in reality, but has tiny flecks of fairy tale sprinkled throughout until we finally get to see scenes from the story Shizuku is writing, which looks full-on Castle in the Sky.

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One thing that Ghibli has always done very well is tell stories from the point of view of children and adolescents without coming across as pandering. They clearly have affection and nostalgia for being that age, and are aware of the emotional strain that time has on young people. Their protagonists almost always have the support of their family, or at least come from a stable home environment, but that still doesn’t preclude them from having to make huge, seemingly life-shattering decisions. In Japanese culture, there’s such a huge pressure put on young people to achieve something, to be smart enough and good enough to become successful adults. This movie really captures that struggle between the expectations placed on a smart student and her desire to achieve a creative goal–in this case, writing a story to prove her worth.

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The movie also deals with how confusing and heartrending it is to fall in love for the first time, and how, certainly in school, the affections of pubescent humans bubble up to the surface. Prior to the romance between Shizuku and Seiji sparking, there’s a subplot about Shizuku’s best friend Yuko getting a love letter from a boy, even though she has a crush on Sugimura, a boy from their class. Shizuku gets angry at Sugimura for being so dumb and not realizing Yuko’s feelings, only to have this longtime friend reveal he’s been in love with Shizuku for years. In deference to her friendship to Yuko, she rebuffs him, but the moment of mutual realization is one of the best scenes in the entire move, with tension and sadness brilliantly conveyed in the characters’ faces and body language. That stuff is harder to realize and more important than any fanciful scene of a cat man flying around a fantasy world.

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It’s truly tragic that Yoshifumi Kondō never got the opportunity to make another movie for Studio Ghibli, or at all. Whisper of the Heart is a lovely movie that, like the best of Ghibli’s filmography, envelopes you in a highly immersive and believable story that feels confident and lived-in. Kondō’s death clearly had an impact of the creative drive of Ghibli, which nearly led to Miyazaki’s retirement (luckily, he came back in 2001 with his Oscar-winning Spirited Away). But it would take 7 years before a second movie was made without Miyazaki or Takahata as director, and it was a fairly safe broad fantasy starring the Baron himself. We’ll take a look at 2002’s The Cat Returns next week.

Images: Studio Ghibli


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass and Takahata Textbook. Follow him on Twitter!

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