The 1997 film Princess Mononoke was going to be the last directed by master animator Hayao Miyazaki. He had a protégé in the form of Yoshifumi Kondo, a talented animator whom Miyazaki and his colleague Isao Takahata had been preparing to take up the reins at Studio Ghibli. The future looked bright when Kondo directed Whisper of the Heart, his first directorial project for the studio, but the film would prove to be his last. In 1998 Kondo suffered a fatal aneurysm and passed away at the tragically young age of 47, leaving this one film as a testament to what might have been.
Unlike many Studio Ghibli films,
Whisper of the Heart is a modern tale of romance, the awakening of
creativity and discovery of a goal in life. The film revolves around
Shizuku Tsukishima, a teenage bookworm who decides to read 20 books during her
summer holidays. However, she soon notices that every book she hires has
been hired by someone else before her, a boy named Seiji Amasawa.
Intrigued, Shizuku tries to find out who the mystery boy is, embarking on a
heartwarming journey of self discovery in the process. Seiji is an
apprentice violin maker and Shizuku admires the fact he has a direction in life,
resolving to find one for herself she throws herself into writing, but will it
be the direction she hopes for?
Whisper of the Heart is an intriguing film in that it portrays a very normal Japanese life. Shizuku lives with her mother, father and older sister in a miniscule apartment, as many Japanese city dwellers do. She has normal worries - homework, exams, boys - and this helps make the story very down to earth. The normality is refreshing, great as Studio Ghibli's other films are they are often set in idealised worlds where everyone lives in big houses and make friends with all the kind people they meet. Whisper of the Heart is grounded in reality, but doesn't lose the sense of wonder and the magic that typifies the films of Studio
Ghibli. What it does differently though is draw this sense from the everyday, and in a way this makes it even more impressive. The normality of the story is contrasted in impressive fashion with the incredible fantasy world Shizuku creates for the book she is writing, and this is one of the film's main strengths.
As you would expect the visuals in the film
are spectacular, but the fantasy scenes - based on the stunning landscapes
created by Japanese artist
Naohisa Inoue - are
truly breathtaking. The level of detail is awesome, but it is interesting
that these scenes do not overpower the rest of the film. In fact the best
scene in the film is not one of these fantastic sequences, but instead a simple,
pared down scene in which Shizuku sings the song Country Roads to Seiji's violin
backing. For all the stunning quality of the fantasy sequences the film
really shines through the scenes shared between Shizuku and Seiji, from the
beautifully spontaneous violin scene to the pair watching the sun rise over
Tokyo. Kondo fills his film with warmth and detail, and backs up the
excellent visuals with a well paced and enjoyable story.
The characters themselves are great too, particularly the strong-minded Shizuku, whilst the plot is handled very well. Despite this the film does have some weaker points. It seems a little unfair to point out the story as one, but some people may find it a bit simplistic - girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, girl finds meaning in her life because of her love, boy loves girl too. It is a straightforward love story, and that won't be to everyone's taste, but it is done extremely well. In fact the only thing I really was disappointed by was the ending, which seems very rushed and a bit too convenient. It's a shame as it feels like the
director tried to wrap everything up neatly in just a couple of minutes when it wasn't really necessary to do so.
In fairness though if you don't have anything against love stories Whisper of the Heart is still a great film, even with the abrupt ending. On some levels it suffers in comparison to other Studio Ghibli films, but on others it more than holds its own. There aren't really any other Ghibli films that cover the same ground and Kondo succeeds in not only creating a high quality work which sits comfortably in the Ghibli catalogue, but also brings his own style to it. Whilst the ending may demonstrate a lack of experience, creating a film this good as a debut is a remarkable achievement. The message of hope and the heartwarming story makes a fitting testament to a talented animator, and Whisper of the Heart is a great film that will leave you to ponder what might have been had Kondo lived.
Plenty once again! As with the previous Studio Ghibli Collection releases from Optimum Asia there are full storyboards for the film, a Japanese trailer reel and a Studio Ghibli Collection trailer reel. Also included is a rolling video which showcases the awesome backgrounds and artwork used in the fantasy sequences, which offers a great opportunity to get a good look at the highly detailed designs.