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.

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* 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.

6 comments:

Samantha said...

I love the movie whisper of the heart. When I first watched it, I had never seen or heard anything about it, only that it was done by studio ghibli. I watched just one time and knew I had to own it. I bought it and still watch it as often as I can. Beautiful story, warm and funny, I loved this movie and all its characters.

nani said...

Everytime I watch this movie it puts me in the best frame of mind. Its hopelessly romantic, poignant, funny, and leaves you with much sense of hope and positiveness. I loved it when I was single, I still love it now that I am married and a mum of two. Ghibli movies is something I have introduced to my kids, and will continue to.

returnofthesmith said...

I am currently catching up on the 3 Ghibli films i had never gotten around to seeing. Pom Poko, Only Yesterday and this wonderful film. I can not believe it took me this long to see it! What a beautiful, romantic and transportative piece of filmmaking. Without an action sequence to its name the film still had the power to hold your attention from the first frame. What you haven't yet mentioned on your blog is the fantastic work that was done on the English dub.

P.S. The supermarket i work at plays "Take me home country roads" everyday on the radio. Now however it will always bring a smile to my face.

Eishagishi said...

It's hard to pick a favorite when a studio churns out multiple works that are this enjoyable. Mimi is certainly one of my favorites!

Need to point out a minor nitpick on the US DVD that I spotted just the other day though.

Possible spoiler ahead...

During the closing credits we see Shizuku's friend Yuuko waiting for and then walking with Sugimura (Miyazaki did say when he did the storyboards that he wanted them to have a happy ending ^_^ ). If you're watching the English credits on the US DVD you will see this (same for the Japanese R2 DVD).

But, if you're watching the US DVD with the Japanese closing credits, the image has been cropped enough on all four sides that we cannot see who these two characters are - they are shown only from about chest height down.

Maybe only a minor cringe, but for me it robs the viewer of one of those small but very satisfying moments in the film. As a theater tech and former video engineering tech, things like this annoy me.

And this does happen quite often in theaters too - sometimes a theater chooses a slightly too short lens for the projector, resulting in a a slightly too big image that has to be cropped down to fit the screen, losing image on all four sides. Again, annoying.

Still love this film though!

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@eishagishi: Yes, that's correct! I forgot about that mishap, and I was never happy about it. The closing credits were a great coda to the story, but if you watch it on the Disney soundtrack, you'll miss it all. A very strange goof, and I'm sure nobody at Disney understood that anything had happened until too late.

I think it's a safe bet this will be fixed on Blu-Ray.

I remember seeing Mimi for the first time, in 2004 (I think). I had just finished downloading it from Kazaa...boy, did that take forever! I knew next to nothing about the movie, except it was Ghibli and was still years away from a US release. I was spellbound, captivated, overwhelmed that such a movie could exist in animation.

Later that afternoon, I went down to the University of Minnesota, which was showing Finding Nemo that week. I was completely underwhelmed. Mimi had completely ruined Pixar's movie for me.

I'm much kinder on Nemo now, but it's hard to shake that initial experience of viewing both films side-to-side. That was the mood I tried to capture when I wrote my review.

Why can't there be animated movies like this in the States? I can't see any reason why we have to be so spellbound to the summer blockbuster formula. Why not make an honest movie for teenage girls for a change?

Chloe Morris said...

I love Whisper of the Heart so much. It is my favourite movie of all time. The ending always makes me cry because it's so sweet !!!!!! Shizuku's version of country roads is hilarious and "even cornier than the original version" (those of u who have watched the movie will probably know this quote).

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