Review: Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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Whisper of the Heart is one of the smaller Studio Ghibli films that has been lost to time.  I hadn’t heard of it at all until I saw it in a list of Hayao Miyazaki’s credits.  Written and produced by Miyazaki, it certainly has his charm, but it’s a smaller, less fantastic tale than those he usually writes.

The story revolves around a teenage girl named Shizuku Tsukishima.  Like most junior high students in Japan, she’s preparing for her high school entrance exams while also struggling with her hormones.  She unexpectedly meets a young man whose name she’s seen on the checkout slips from books she’s borrowed from the library where her father works.  This boy has a drive and a focus that she feels she lacks, and he inspires her to find herself amid the chaos of everyone else’s expectations.

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I was moved by the film.  Director Yoshifumi Kondo uses a deft touch to elicit subtle performances from his animators.  Due to his death at the age of 47, this is his only directing credit, but he served as supervising animator for many of Miyazaki’s masterpieces.  It’s a pity that he died so young, as this feature shows the confidence of a tried and true hand at the helm.  All of the character designs, performances, and locations ring true.  In fact, this could have easily been a live action film.  The tone of the movie is very similar to some of the more charming features of the 40’s and 50’s.  Roman Holiday comes to mind.

The screenplay was adapted from the manga by Aoi Hiiragi.  The story is not so different from many other coming of age tales, but it has a kindness that others often lack.  I was especially impressed with the portrayal of Shizuku’s parents.  They’re kind to their children and open to letting them be who they want to be.  They’re written as role models for parents in any culture–an oddity in a teen-centric script, for sure.

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The characters, though simply drawn in that Ghibli style, reveal their inner landscapes through masterful animation that doesn’t distract from the story.  There’s no bombastic action and only a brief foray into the fantastic.  Instead, there are emotional truths that every young person encounters.  Though the film feels small, it’s emotional content looms larger than life, accurately reflecting the way the world is viewed by most adolescents.

Strangely, the 1971 John Denver hit,  Take Me Home, Country Roads, is a centerpiece here.  Shizuku flexes her writing skills by attempting to adapt the song into Japanese for her friends to sing in their choral group.  The song both opens and closes the film, and while it seems like an odd choice, it’s absolutely the correct one.

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When a film works as well as this one does, it’s difficult to single out any of the collaborators for praise.  The Japanese cast is pitch perfect in their roles.  The music tugs at the heart strings just enough without being overly sappy.  The artwork portrays the real world in great detail but not to the point of distraction.  This is the antithesis of the big budget Hollywood blockbuster, and it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.  Highly recommended.