Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Whisper of the Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba; If You Listen Closely)

Like many anime geeks, I worship at the Church of Ghibli; according to me, the studio's reputation is entirely deserved. Hayao Miyazaki and others have made many great family films, written with natural human emotion despite their strange settings, and the themes provided with a light touch.

However, there are few Ghibli movies that "speak" to me on a personal level, that have something beyond their basic goodness to absorb me in a personal sense. Those that do, they do with grace. One of them will be addressed later on, but another, which eclipses it, is the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, Whisper tells the story of Shizuku Tsukishima, a dreamy, bookish junior high girl. Shizuku loves nothing more than to read stories, and whenever she takes a book out from the library, that same name is always on the card before hers: "Seiji Amasawa".

While she doesn't actively search for the owner of this name, she wonders who it will be, and does end up running into Seiji, in a story about an antique shop, first love, and finding one's gift as an artist, as well as cats, a doll, and John Denver's "Country Roads".  The plot is building to nothing larger, but nothing smaller, than a series of events in one girl's young life. But these events are rendered with such honesty and beauty that they are captivating.

The sense of reality is also brought out by the art and animation, which create a realistic, detailed picture of modern Japan, from the Tsukishimas' cluttered apartment to the treasures in the "Earth Shop" to the library and the convenience store. Shizuku's fantasy sequences also boast distinct painted backgrounds by Japanese artist Naohisa Inoue, based on his paintings of the imaginary land "Iblard". His work can also be seen in the short film "Iblard Time", which are stills of his painting with some animated add-ons.

Even though I was much older than Shizuku the first time I saw this movie, I had an instant connection to it. The way that Whisper of the Heart depicts the fear and frustration of a budding artist is timeless, and there are scenes that feel so true to life they're tearjerkers. The fact that Shizuku and I share a lot of interests also helps to make the film resonant.

Furthermore, I appreciate the film's subtext about finding beauty in the everyday. Shizuku is not ditzy or stupid, but is always ready to look for "adventure", to treat something like finding a new antique store as a wondrous event. Shizuku lives in the moment, sees the world with bright, clear eyes, and it's sweet and inspiring.

At the same time, there is a sense of pragmatism underlying Whisper, as Shizuku goes through a dangerous period where she neglects her studies to finish her novel (doubly resonant in Japan, where high school entrance exams are a huge part of a child's future). Shizuku finishes it and promises to return to her studying, while the story tells us that Shizuku needs more work, that she is young and untried but full of potential. Seiji's grandfather tells her this using the analogy of emerald pieces inside beryl, visible inside a geode.

A dose of practicality can be used to enhance a story's idealism, and it works great in Whisper of the Heart. I can't help but think that in ten years, Shizuku and Seiji will marry as they promised, and it will be awesome because they have worked hard to achieve their dreams.

The original manga by Hiiragi is very fun, and the characters are very similar, but the dramatic punch was mostly the work of the film version. Shizuku experiences no insecurity regarding her writing, no tension regarding her schoolwork, and Seiji does not move away to study his craft (violin making in the film, painting in the manga). Both stories are about ordinary life, but the film version is the one that punches me in the gut.

Though often billed as the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who did write the screenplay and direct some of Shizuku's fantasy sequences, Whisper of the Heart was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo as his debut. Kondo was a Ghibli up-and-comer who tragically died of aortic dissection (aneurysm) in 1998, at age 47.

I have to admit, I got a little bit misty-eyed when writing this review. It's rare to find a work of art that speaks to you so perfectly, one that comforts and reassures, but also reminds you that you need to work hard to achieve your dreams. Whisper of the Heart is, without question, my favourite Studio Ghibli film. I don't know yet if it's my favourite movie, period, because I feel like I should choose something more adult and sophisticated, but it still is something special.

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