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lupercal's Review of Whisper of the Heart

rated it: posted: Feb 19, 2005
Reviews: 517 | KF Animation Editor
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It's late and I'm half awake, but I want to write this before something I wanted to say slips away.

'Whisper of the Heart' is a sublime movie. If you want to put it in a category, then I suppose it's a teen romance, but that conveys about as much important information about this movie as if I were to say that 'Bambi' was a wildlife movie.

'Whisper of the Heart' is also a coming of age movie, it's about 'finding yourself' (you know, the sort of thing that so many films make a hamfisted song and dance about. Here it just comes through effortlessly). It's also a film about the creative process itself, and more besides.

That's not to try to portray the film as overtly complicated. It's not. It's a very realistic story about a 14 year-old girl in Japan falling in love, having to deal with an admirer she doesn't love, trying to write her first book, and trying to discover whether she has enough talent to do what she might want to do with her life.

Every time I write a Ghibli review I seem to say something about the film's attention to detail. Here it is just awe-inspiring. And I don't mean the sort of attention to detail in something like 'Nausicaa', or 'Spirited Away' - the 'every scene contains a dozen things you've never seen before' type of detail. In fact it's just the opposite. Every scene contains a dozen things you've probably seen hundreds of times before. It's simply that someone thought to draw them in an animated film. Every shot is almost photo-realistic in its wealth of detail. Two characters will walk down a street, and the vacant lot on the left has some obscure piece of old machinery sitting in it with all the rust and rain stains and rivets carefully drawn in. The main character fumbles trying to turn off her bedside lamp, fails, raises herself up on her elbow to do it. When she's writing she pushes the top of her clutch-pencil down. She has a mannerism where she jiggles her legs under the desk when she gets writer's block. Things that are totally mundane, but that nobody else would think of putting in a cartoon.

Even the weather is used almost poetically. For the first twenty minutes or so all the outdoor scenes are in bright sunshine, then there's a scene where it happens to be raining. There's absolutely no plot-reason for this, but the effect on the tone of the movie is beautful, and so intense that I could almost smell the wet ashpalt.

'Whisper of the Heart' is a very slow movie. If you're used to anime teen romances being slapstick, hyper-manic comedies, forget it. And forget anything that comes out of Hollywood, too. I really hesitate even to use the 'romance' word, because it could put you off.

Shizuku is a voracious reader, and a creative spirit. At the start she's translating, and re-interpreting 'Take me Home Country Roads' so that the lyrics have more of a personal meaning for her (there are probably half a dozen different arrangements of this song during the film, and a couple of them are so beautiful it's incredible). She falls for the grandson of an antique dealer. He's off to Italy to do an apprenticeship, to find out whether he has the talent to go on and be a craftsman. In the meantime, Shizuku is determined she's going to test herself the same way by writing a novel. For inspiration she uses the statue of a top-hat and suit wearing cat in the antique shop. This gives rise to several fantasy segments which are exhilerating in a typically Ghibli-esque way.

I've said the film is incredibly realistic, but there is also a sense of the fantastic lurking just below the surface, signalled by the movie's recurring coinicidences, which you know are just too unlikely to be explained away rationally. What does this mean though? The hidden magical potential in the film as a metaphor for the hidden creative powers of the characters, of the artist?

Perhaps I identify with this film a little more than average. When I was Shizuku's age I was writing novels at school as well, and I remember what it was like being caught up in this outpouring of raw creativity.

I should probably mention that I haven't heard the English dub, so I can't comment about the English voice cast.

I have a feeling I'm not being very articulate about this movie. I'll just finish by saying that, more than anything, this is an optimistic movie about hope and self-fulfillment. It's an absolute gem.

The director, Yoshifumi Kondo, was apparently being groomed by Miyazaki to take over as the head of Ghibli Studios. He had worked on the last several movies, and went on to be supervising animator on 'Princess Mononoke', but the year after, in 1998, he died at the age of 47. On the strength of this, his single feature as director, I believe he probably would have gone on to be at least as great if not greater than Miyazaki. If only he had been given a shot at directing earlier in his association with Miyazaki (which goes back as far as the original 1971 Lupin III TV series, when he was just 20)

Whatever you do, see this film. Don't expect the thrills and epic scope of most of Miyazaki's films. This one moves in low gear for most of the ride. Honestly, I'm pretty much in awe of it. The only tiny criticism I can think to make is that the very ending seemed to me a little sudden and obvious, but we're talking about a few seconds out of 109 minutes that are otherwise faultless.

animated movie Whisper of the Heart © Studio Ghibli / Nippon Television Network
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Whisper of the Heart
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