***/**** 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.
Bookish Shizuku dreams of writing a novel and notices one summer that every book she takes out at the school library has already been checked out once before by someone called Seiji (Kazuo Takahashi). She meets-cute Seiji and hates him, of course, and then there's the magical antique store owned by Seiji's grandfather (Keiji Kobayashi) with items that seduce Youko's fertile imagination, especially a figurine of a cat in tux and top hat, The Baron (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi--The Baron the centre of his own Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns), whose tale of star-cross'd love mirrors Shizuku's. Seiji dreams of being a violin-maker and an apprenticeship in Italy--a single-mindedness that inspires Shizuku to put off studying for her high-school admissions tests in favour of realizing her dream to be an author. Whisper of the Heart tells a refreshingly ordinary tale of a bright little girl that is unfortunately torpedoed a time or three by tacked-on dream/fantasy sequences.
It's rare for a film in any genre to valorize writing poetry and literacy, and rarer still for a film essentially about nothing to sport so many moments of genuinely fruitful observation in its interpersonal interactions, which makes the picture's flights of fancy feel the more unnecessary. Compare the picture with Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday for an example of how Whisper of the Heart goes wrong when it most resembles the popular western conception of anime--and of how it goes so right in illustrating the intricacies of the relationship between Shizuku and her working-class older sister Shiho (Yorie Yamashita). A mixed bag, then, Whisper of the Heart is another nice coming-of-age story for a young girl by an important artist (Miyazaki) whose great warmth seems to flow from a desire to mentor, whether the subject be his daughter or the promising young artists he hopes to mold into successors. There's a potency to his films, a certain generosity and warmth that defines his auteurism more than anything else, and, with that, an ebullient hopefulness about the cycle of growth that can be infectious. A minor work in his portfolio, even as the only film directed by the most promising of his charges, Whisper of the Heart is a lot of things, but it's probably best seen as proof that in spite of his best efforts at immortality through his legacy, Miyazaki is irreplaceable.
Like Disney's other 2-disc Studio Ghibli releases, Whisper of the Heart arrives on DVD in North America slipcovered in a swing-tray keepcase and equipped with paltry, Amero-centric extras and a second platter consisting solely of a storyboarded version of the film. Not much to report on either end of the A/V spectrum here: the perfunctory-feeling, windowboxed 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer reproduces Kondo's muted colour palette with some fidelity, while music is the only thing giving the rear speakers any kind of workout as far as the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is concerned. Both the original Japanese option (preferred) and an English dub--sub-par by the surprisingly high standards Disney has set for its Ghibli titles--sport the same limited mix.
"Behind the Microphone" (8 mins.) is typically useless promotional shit detailing the hard work of the dub-actors where an essay on the Japanese voice cast would be more interesting by far. Though it's been opined elsewhere with more eloquence, one of the reasons that American animation is so far behind the sophistication and maturity of Japanese animation is the belief that professional voice actors are less important than "names" like, I suppose, Cary Elwes, Billy Crudup (Princess Mononoke's English-language lead), and Courtney Thorne-Smith. A "Special Trailer Collection" (11 mins.) is a continuous reel of, yeah, trailers for Whisper of the Heart. Aside from Disc Two's storyboard-apalooza, that's it. You'd think Disney would do more for one of the most important voices in world cinema, but there you have it. Originally published: April 21, 2006.