***/**** Image B Sound B- Extras D
screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
by Walter Chaw Three years after directing Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki-scripted Whisper of the Heart, and before he was able to complete a second picture for the venerable Japanese institution, ace animator and Miyazaki protégé Yoshifumi Kondo passed away of an aneurysm at the age of 47. Knowledge of Kondo's fate colours the already wistful Whisper of the Heart with another layer of blue (especially if you're a fan of Kondo's behind-the-scenes work on landmark anime like Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Mononoke), but it doesn't completely rescue its remarkable humanity from frequent descents into culturally-alien specificity. The obsession with reworking John Denver's hilljack schmaltz classic "Country Road" into an un-ironic ode to the "concrete roads" of the picture's Tokyo-bound little girl protagonist (Shizuku (Youko Honna)), for instance, almost by itself renders Whisper of the Heart a Hello Kitty! for that particular brand of Japanese, Yank-ophile, cross-eyed badger shit. It's a better film if you're Japanese--kind of an amazing thing to say, I know, but the moments that don't reconstitute American "popular" culture through a Nipponese filter manage a fair-to-amazing job of evoking the overwhelming rush of first love. Shame, then, that John Denver appears at regular intervals to remind us of how peculiar a beast cultural diffusion can be.