“Country Roads” by John Denver is a song that has traveled like few others, echoing across the planet for decades. It's a peculiar kind of universal language; at the World Cup in 2006, my friends and I sang it incessantly with Germans and Italians and Austrians and Ghanaians in the streets of Kaiserslautern. All the people knew the words, because of course they did. Everyone's got their favorite version of it, too—I like the Toots & the Maytals one myself. Whisper of the Heart, the 1995 film by Yoshifumi Kondo and Studio Ghibli, opens with the Olivia Newton-John version.
The song wasn't chosen merely because it's catchy and universally liked, but because it's very important to the film's story. (I'd describe it as “instrumental,” but that seems a bit redundant. Plus, it has vocals!) Shizuku Tsukishima is a smart 14-year-old, and her final task in junior high is to create a new translation for “Country Roads” for the school's graduation ceremony. But like most budding writers, she finds herself struggling with the task. The books at the library, a place that she loves (her dad works there, too!), aren't providing adequate inspiration, either. The library is about to undergo computerization, and Shizuku expresses dismay at the card catalog being digitized. She likes the cards; so does dad. Then she notices something about the cards in her books: every last one was checked out by the same person just before her – a certain Seiji Amasawa. There's a weird magic to those old check-out cards – if you're of a certain age, you might feel a sense of kinship and relief at seeing Shizuku scrutinizing them so intently. I used to do that too, wondering about the people who'd gotten to the books before I did. What were they like? Shizuku wonders this about the mysterious Mr Amasawa.
Then, my favorite sequence in the film happens: Shizuku meets a cat on the train. The cat isn't lost or hiding; it's commuting. Shizuku is smart enough to realize an important fact: when you meet a cat on the subway, you follow the cat when it gets off. After all, cats know where all the best stuff is. This particular cat leads Shizuku through winding streets and alleys to a lovely little antiques store, and it's there that she meets Seiji himself. Whisper of the Heart is full of this kind of magic, you see.
But the two meeting up isn't exactly a “meet-cute.” It turns out that the guy she'd imagined as being cool, handsome, and totally relatable is the same one who'd sneaked a look at her in-progress lyrics and teased her for them. Shizuku can tell she has something in common with Seiji, but he got a look inside her brain, and that rattles her. Even worse, Seiji has an obvious talent-- he's an apprentice luthier-- and she feels she has no skill at all, certainly nothing to compare with him. The antiques shop owner, Seiji's grandfather, gently explains that Shizuku is like a geode—a rough-looking rock on the outside, but one that contains hidden potential. But Shizuku is fourteen, an age when kids are at their most hopeful, but most uncertain. What if she's a plain old rock?
Watching Whisper of the Heart, I lay back and dream about the alternate universe where director Yoshifumi Kondo had toughed it out and directed Little Nemo. His showmanship here—in particular, a set of dreamlike sequences based on a short story Shizuku is writing, starring a fanciful feline baron she'd encountered in the shop—is proof that he'd have made Nemo a great film, instead of the merely good one that Masami Hata ended up cobbling together. In this film, Kondo shows numerous gifts—a gift for the characters’ body language, as Shizuku and Seiji are outwardly combative, but inwardly drawn towards each other. He offsets Shizuku's tale with the dream sequences, featuring animation direction by some old guy named Miyazaki and wonderful background artwork by Naohisa Inoue. And as for “Country Roads,” he lets the song propel the film- it opens with the tune, there are several reprisals, and a neat new version to tie things up, right at the end.
Other than the Inoue paintings, which set the film apart (one of the disc's extras is a timelapse sequence of Inoue creating the artwork, which is worth a look), Whisper of the Heart is a pretty typical Studio Ghibli film, visually. Kondo is the one who came up with rough character designs for Shizuku and the gang, but it's fellow Ghibli regular Kitaro Kousaka (who's also been the go-to guy to adapt Naoki Urasawa characters) who creates the look of the characters for the movie. It is tempting to think of Ghibli films as stand-alone products, but they often aren't; just like Disney's Bambi was still created by children's book author Felix Salten, Whisper of the Heart was originally a brief shoujo manga from the pages of Ribbon Magazine. Thankfully, the film doesn't need to stray too far from Aoi Hiiragi's original comics to achieve its look and feel. The most significant change? In the original manga, Seiji is a classical painter, not a violin luthier.
The film's Blu-ray is what we've come to expect from Disney's Ghibli blu-ray releases: a flawless 1080p version of the movie, plus a generous selection of extras, featuring the complete storyboard animatic that's essential viewing for anyone fascinated with the process of animation. Aside from that and the previously-mentioned Inoue featurette, my favorite part of the extras is the interview with the English-language cast. These are ordinarily pretty light, but it's a joy to hear Cary Elwes speak about his role as the cat baron—he plainly loves the character that he reprises from The Cat Returns, which was dubbed in English first, and is very familiar with his world and story. Like most of the other Disney Ghibli releases, I find the dubbed version natural-sounding and enjoyable—the production team is talented at finding character actors who are good at voiceover work, instead of stunt-casting big names. Overall, however, I tilt towards the Japanese version, simply because “Country Roads,” with its rewritten Japanese lyrics, is so crucial to the storyline.
At the time of Whisper of the Heart’s release, Yoshifumi Kondo was being touted as a clear successor to studio founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. But then, shortly after Princess Mononoke wrapped, he died. The medical report says it was aortic dissection—a tearing in the heart often brought on by high blood pressure—but his colleagues will tell you it was “karoshi,” the “death from overwork” that dogs so many in the Japanese workplace, or maybe the more specific “anime syndrome,” a term coined by Yasuji Mori to describe the persistent, low-level illness that comes as a result of too many 18-hour days spent hunched over the drafting table. It's so sad when something like this happens – Kondo is one of many names, like Kanada, Kon, and Osamu Tezuka himself, men who toiled too hard and drew the short straw. The younger directors who came after Kondo - Yonebashi, Morita, and the younger Miyazaki - are each good in their own right, but it's this film that comes closest to matching the finest of Miyazaki and Takahata's works. It's unfortunate that this is the only movie directed by Kondo that we've got.
As Whisper of the Heart winds towards its climax, Shizuku and Seiji find themselves together, talking excitedly about their futures. They talk of going overseas, of relentlessly pursuing their craft, of sticking together. These kids are too young to be making decisions like this, which makes it all the more exhilarating when they go ahead and make them anyway. That's what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood, when you start to make those leaps of faith both personal and professional. In Whisper of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo and his staff distill that feeling expertly, giving us a movie about uncertainty, and the certainty that rushes in afterwards.