Back in 1995 it looked like the world renowned Studio Ghibli had found another voice, a director capable of possibly standing alongside the twin pillars that built the studio of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Sadly the 47 year old Yoshifumi Kondo, who many have posited could have been not only part of an animation triumvirate of visionaries but could also have been seen as a true successor to the pairing, found his life tragically cut short by an aneurism. An already respected animator, whose works included many of the most acclaimed Ghibli productions, and a friend of Miyazakiand Takahata, his sole directorial work survives him in the shape of Whisper of the Heart.
There’s a great temptation to eulogise deceased artists, bumping their many achievements into a more elevated creative stratosphere, waxing lyrical on the impact they may have had, pondering where they would be now and how their output ,had they lived, might have affected the artistic landscape. Usually though, it’s little more than lip service paid in a respectful manner, mediocre careers cut short just aren’t a good story. Kondo’s legacy is, however, a different matter; Whisper of the Heart is everything you’d hope a directorial debut from a potential Ghibli torch bearer would be, and bear in mind it was the first theatrical Ghibli production not to have either one of the high profile founders at the helm. In such an atmosphere of expectation it would be easy to falter, but what unfolds from Kondo is not only in line with the rest of the studio’s output of high standards, fantastical and imaginative, but also hints at space for further personal evolution of craft.
The premise, based on Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, sounds blueprint Ghibli; a young girl, Shizuku, fills her days with books, daydreams through schooldays, and is drawn away from the humdrum of everyday life by her imagination. Her father works in a library, and is busy working on the move away from card categorization towards implementing barcodes (or the more modern computerisation if you’re listening to the dub, more on which later). Her mother is busy studying for her own qualifications and her sister arrives home from university to share the cramped bedroom that is usually her private domain in the small high rise flat the family resides in. Everything revolves around books and studying.
Shizuku has it in her mind that, during her holidays when she should be busy prepping up for her high school entrance exams, she will try to read twenty books. She splits this task between the two libraries, that which her father works in and the school’s own. Her dismay at the modernization of the former, making stamped cards redundant, soon becomes a plot point as she discovers all the books she’s been burying her head in have been checked out by the same boy before her, Seiji Amsawa. She begins to wonder what he’s like, dreaming that perhaps she’s found a kindred spirit, similarly taken with stories and other worlds created from ink and imaginations. Meanwhile she continues with the humdrum of school life, a maelstrom of exam nerves and adolescent crushes.
What’s fascinating about how the subject matter is approached is that it largely sidesteps just what you may think a Ghibli film is about. It has every opportunity to descend into a world of glorious escapism, yet it is restrained for the vast majority of its 111 minute running time. This is something that comes across all the better in the original language with subtitles than the modern US dub. The Japanese script is often economical with its language, keeping short punchy speech relatively terse. This reflects the overall air of responsibility that Shizuku is figuratively running from; she’s frequently told to do something in Japanese, yet asked or lovingly pestered to do so when American voices ring out. It’s not a bad dub (though there are the usual older than they need to be actors utilised to hit the teenage crowd but that’s a given these days) but the move to lip-syncing the script works better as a localisation than a reflection of the original’s atmosphere.
Not only does the film hold back from freeing itself into the sphere of Shizuku’s imagination willy nilly, but it also roots itself in the more minor concerns of middle school life in a manner that may put some off. Passing notes and tweenagers telling each other that they “like” someone of the opposite gender may sound very Miley Cyrus but it’s actually heart warming. The time is taken to build a foundation for the character of Shizuku to not only develop from but also be seen to transcend. Her friend Yuko is having boy trouble, her parents want her to knuckle down and there’s a boy at school that confounds her. She bounds from pillar to post, always late and with her head stuck in the pages of a book. It’s about forty minutes before we get a significant development in terms of the emotional landscape, but once you’re there you realise you’re captured by the effervescent charm of this young girl struggling with day to day life with her head in the clouds.
Fate lends a hand when a stray cat is followed, in an Alice in Wonderland style, to lead our heroine to a neighbourhood high up on a hill, an affluent suburb with a quaint antiques shop that piques Shizuku’s interest. The old man who runs it shows her the curios he’s collected, with one figure in particular, an anthropomorphised cat known as “The Baron” lighting the touchpaper of inspiration, and her wide-eyed awe hints at a mind still eager to absorb any story she can find. The greatest of which will prove to be her own, as she soon meets the boy from the library card, Seiji, and realises that she has yet to find her own direction in life. With her love of books she decides she’ll challenge herself to be a writer and resolves to pen a tale in a short period of time; her studies go downhill, her family blissfully unaware of her undertaking, and she lets all else fall by the wayside in her quest to complete her tale.
It’s a strangely mature narrative of self discovery that at times seems masquerading as juvenile troubles. The road to maturity for Shizuku is winding, and takes in far less of the impressionistic scenery one might expect for a Ghibli story rooted in the battle between imagination and reality, but it doesn’t suffer for it. One can only guess where Kondo’s body of work might have fallen in the studio’s landscape, between pastel skies and eco-tales, Japan and nameless worlds, but Whisper of the Heart stands as an evocative animation in its own right, not always looking for the “wow” factor, but building a level of compassion for a petulant daydreaming kid whose problems reflect those of adults the world over, even if many wouldn’t admit as such.
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