Saturday, 23 January 2010

Whisper of the Heart (1995), Yoshifumi Kondo

(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.


  1. Stephen - Excellent piece here that I don't know that I'm qualified enough to add anything to, because as I said earlier - I know nothing about animation. But I just wanted to throw up a response to say that I am following these reviews that you are posting, even if I don't leave comments on each of them. Great work!

  2. Thank you very much Dave. I'm glad you're getting something from them.

    Likewise I've been reading your brilliantly exhaustive film noir countdown too.

  3. "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."

    Beautifully-written review throughout and i must say i am more than a little intrigued by a film I have not yet seen. Your love for the form and your abilitly to impart that passion makes this more than a delightful read.

  4. Thank you so much for the kind comments, Sam.

    I strongly encourage you to see it and I hope you can tell me what you think when you do.

  5. SO the Japanese are here finally, eh? Wonderful review I say. The last screenshot alone seems to be a proof of the film's eloquent quality. Thanks for this.

  6. Stephen-- enjoying the picks on this list so far, even if a movie like this isn't one I enjoy all that much, myself. I've got some personal issues with Studio Ghibli films that for the moment I'm not going to be able to get past (long story short-- never fall for an anime fangirl). I'm looking forward to seeing what other titles we're likely to see in the future. If it's on your list, maybe I won't have to write a big long "Robot Carnival" piece after all, just to remind people that it exists (that'll prove tricky, though, as it's damn near impossible to find on DVD).

    Also, love the new Godard head banner. Anyone know when that movie's coming out?

  7. JAFB, thank you. I'm being careful not to go anime mad.

    "The last screenshot alone seems to be a proof of the film's eloquent quality"

    Yes, it really captures the feel of the piece.

  8. Bob, thank you for the kind comment.

    I'm afraid you are going to have to write that "Robot Carnival" review. I like it but I won't be writing anything on it.

    Maybe I'll write something on another portmanteau film, 'Memories'.

    "Also, love the new Godard head banner. Anyone know when that movie's coming out?"

    Thanks. The last I heard it was looking like being premiered at Cannes.

    "Never fall for an anime fangirl"


  9. Thanks, Stephen, for this wonderful review. This DVD has been sitting unwatched on my shelf for several years -- I can't recall what prompted to buy it, but now you've given me the impetus to watch it. Thanks!

  10. Thanks Mark. It's my pleasure.

    I'd be interested to know what you think. It's one of my favourite films

  11. this anime sure is one of the best ever. its story, its music....... i love all of them..

  12. I like it more and more. It really is an excellent film.