Saturday, 23 January 2010
(Part of Animation Month)
Whisper of the Heart is a story of love between two teenage schoolchildren, a girl who dreams of being a writer and a boy who longs to be a professional violin maker. Based on a manga series, it is Yoshifumi Kondo's only film. Before he died Kondo was seen as Studio Ghibli's heir apparent to the Miyazaki-Takahata crown.
When it comes to the depiction of young love in film, or indeed in reality, we know the form. There are concerned parents who see the relationship as an obstacle to self-improvement and a distraction from exams. The teenagers are more often than not patronised - even, subtly, by the film-makers themselves - with the perception that their love is a phase, a hollow rite of passage, an emotional development they are neither ready for nor have true understanding of : 'You don't know what love is'. The couple are forced to build a cocoon around themselves to shut the world out. They are forced to display the signs of 'immaturity', i.e. headstrongness and selfishness, to hold on to what they have.
Whisper of the Heart is one of the most refreshing films you are ever likely to see because it rejects all convention to treat this love with the unswerving respect that it deserves.
Kondo and scriptwriter Hayao Miyazaki put no external pressure on Shizuku and Seiji. Their parents don't even know. Far from acting as an obstacle the relationship flourishes as an inspiration and a spur to self-improvement. Shizuku is pushed to follow her dream when she sees the determination of her boyfriend to do the same. What is marvellous about the film is how it defines love as a strengthening of the heart and mind rather than the dissolving of individuality and clear thinking.
Because Seiji is so fearless in his pursuit of his future she too can overcome the fear and self-doubt of adolescence and discover that she can play an important role in life. She takes the old song 'Country Roads' and writes new lyrics for it, (renaming it 'Concrete Roads'!) seeing that the world can be as much hers as anyone's.
Their time together charmingly demonstrates how for them, even at a young age, love is as natural and true as hunger or thirst. If this is an impressionable age, the film implies, then love could be the perfect influence to mould their lives. The old man in the antique shop shows her a rock with a hidden crystal vein. He tells her that she is like the rock and that she can be polished into something that shines. Is this not what Ghibli routinely does, mine the everyday for hidden magic?
The hidden and the inner is key. Shizuku is led to Seiji when she discovers that he has been reading the same books that she has. In Jane Campion's Bright Star Fanny and John express their love through surrogates. In other words they honour what is close to the person they love when they cannot be physically close. John strokes Fanny's cat and sleeps in her old bed while Fanny kisses his letters and looks after his ailing brother. So it is in Whisper of the Heart that Shizuku falls for Seiji through these books - his love for what she loves.
The film is not carried away with their feelings. It is calm and relaxed. One could almost say detached. Note how often the protagonists stand atop a school roof or a hill to overlook the city to consider their lives and their place in the wider community. Pillow shots of traffic or running water or the sustained shot of her skirt rippling against the wind speak of contentment, tranquility and contemplation. Thus the oft-criticised marriage proposal that concludes the film makes perfect sense. The commitment has been there all along and we could not be more certain that this isn't a starry-eyed, 'you're so pretty!' crush.
Nothing is out of place. Not one edit, not one angle or choice of music jars. It is not a perfect film, no, but it leaves you with a feeling of wholeness that is close to perfection. We are living in an era where animation is being used to bring to life wondrous and rapturous stories of how things are as well as how they might be. This is not animation that shows itself or its maker off. It is not self-regarding. In my opinion Whisper of the Heart is yet more evidence that the grand storytellers of Studio Ghibli are the greatest exponents of the animated media that we have ever seen.