Reviewby Tim Henderson,
Whisper of the Heart
A famously slow-moving animated film, Whisper of the Heart focuses on young book-worm Shizuku Tsukishima as she spends her final Junior High School summer break translating Western pop music into Japanese and burning through an alarming number of fiction novels. This routine leads to the discovery of a recurring name written on the loan-cards in the back of each book, a simple observation from which a modest tale that gently deals with the emotional giddiness of those early teenage years is able to organically grow.
Although hardly out-of-place in the anime vernacular, the densely-packed city streets of Tokyo — overflowing with artificial light and more convenience stores than there may be people to shop at them — that fill the frame during Whisper of the Heart's opening seconds, one can't help but feel at odds with what one would expect from a film penned – if not directed – by none other than Hayao Miyazaki.
And so it is hardly comes as a surprise when it takes a turn for the familiar, comfortable territory more easily associated with the man. The setting of Tokyo never really goes away – although it does recede somewhat into the background, at least visually – but the lust for the rolling hills and dense forests of the country is palpably communicated. In fact it's said with the kind of direct bluntness that could rival a lead brick. Or sang, as is more literally the case.
John Denver's lyrically direct 'Take Me Home, Country Roads' makes it's first audible appearance within Whisper of the Heart's earliest moments, and it remains a musical and lyrical motif for the film's entire duration. The contrast is stark, but likely less from left-field for Japanese viewers: this is a song that has penetrated the undercurrent of Japan's borrowed pop culture where it might be assumed 'Sweet Home Alabama' was due a slot. It has the rare honour of sharing pages with the likes of Stevie Wonder and a couple of Beatles-related numbers in the back of English textbooks, and as a result, not only are a large number of people aware of it, but the lyrical meaning is likely far better understood than that of most Western pop music.
Perhaps the Japanese lack an empathetic cultural pining for the West Virginian lands towards which these lyrics yearn, bordering as the landscape does on the likes of Kentucky and Pennsylvania, but there's certainly a geographical link – the place isn't known as the Mountain State out of irony. And when it comes down to it, seemingly everyone in Tokyo is from somewhere other than Tokyo. The concept of taking one home relates to easy-to-comprehend tranquillity and contentedness, and makes as fitting a relationship metaphor as anything else.
Yes – and it should come as no surprise, given how the English translation of the title worked out – Whisper of the Heart is at its core, a tale of young love; as well as, in equal proportion, a tale of nostalgic love for being young. The first and final film directed by Ghibli prodigy Yoshifumi Kondō before his unfortunate passing, Whisper of the Heart is both a particularly sedate slice of the studio's canon, as well as a triumphant look at the mental state and life of a Junior High student.
The pacing really is as deliberate as its reputation suggests, to the point where it may seem dull and slow to younger viewers. Kondo isn't in a rush to unload his mentor's story; conversely, he seems delightfully coy – almost unwilling to tell it at all, arguably confident that it will find a way to express itself should the mundane be given time enough to linger. This is the world of outer Tokyo in the mid-90's and, as should be expected, it's one where teenagers are largely unable to directly express themselves to their parents. Likewise, said parents often struggle to understand the daily tide and swing of emotions that have nothing to do with – but nonetheless affect – them or their own actions.
And so the story, meandering as it is, revolves around 14-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima, a socially-enabled bookworm who seems hell-bent on crafting a perfect Japanese translation of that John Denver number. She has the same troubles as most girls her age – exams loom, her best friend is embroiled in a cutely awkward love triangle, and she has herself developed an unwitting crush on a boy that keeps on appearing on the cards in all her library books, for whom she has only a name. Things linger like this for a while, until Shuzuka eventually follows a chubby, free-loading cat on a train-ride across Tokyo that leads her to an old store with a violin workshop in the basement
This leads her to make friends with the elderly owner, become smitten with an upstanding statue of a far more sensibly-fed cat in fine clothes, and to unknowingly grab hold of some threads of plot that will tie many of the earlier-mentioned themes into a cohesive enough story to satisfy most people who demand a proper beginning-through-end narrative of a film, even one that's main purpose is to cast an observational gaze over a selected slice of teenage life.
In this regard, Whisper is a master-stroke of success. It's a film that asks you observe and piece things together for yourself, rather than outright stating anything, and it's far more believable and affecting as a result. Its cast of characters frequently stumble in trying to express themselves and often trip even harder when trying to read each other. Its meaning is buried through the simple act of witnessing both sides of bumbling attempts at communication, and teenage love is depicted with delightfully realistic awkwardness.
All of this is masterfully echoed in the visuals perhaps even more strongly than is the Ghibli norm. Tokyo is cunningly used to reflect Shizuku's state of mind, flipping between quiet outer suburbs and ramshackle streets overflowing with noise at the director's whim; likewise, her fixation with books and creative fiction allows for some moments of greater abstraction – and a sneaky flight sequence – into a world otherwise bound by the laws of reality as an audience can swallow them.
This glee is further amplified by the eyes of a girl in her early teens who has yet to fully let go of her sense of childlike wonder and, some might say, foolishness. But it's difficult not to get swept away in the ideology, because you know that, much like those 14-year-olds on the screen, you once believed such nonsense with absolute sincerity yourself. And it was marvellous. Whisper of the Heart's overall conclusion is as sweet as it is naïve; you know that things aren't going to be as concrete as the young cast might like to imagine, but it's hard not to bask in the glow of such narrow-minded idealism while it still lasts.
Being a Ghibli Blu-Ray release, this disc is at once high-quality, as well as staunchly as it was before. The disc itself is an exact mirror of the original DVD that Madman released years ago now, and the film looks like a cleaner version of what you remember. It's an impressively pure transfer, although some may find themselves wishing that a little digital trickery were allowed to interfere and buff those colours up just a tad.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
+ A wonderfully animated and unique chapter in the Ghibli library
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