Mimi wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) (2004 Review)
July 12, 2004
I’m sitting here at my keyboard, trying to summon the words to describe this great, magnificent little movie called Whisper of the Heart. How 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.
This 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.
Whisper 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).*
This 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.
Eventually, 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.
Whisper 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.
Whisper 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.
It 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 city.
One 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.
Studio 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.
* 2009 Note: The royalties dispute over "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was eventually settled, and Mimi wo Sumaseba/Whisper of the Heart is now available in the US.