2012 is already proving to be an exciting year for Miyazaki/Ghibli fans, with their latest movie, Arrietty just released on BD, and several older titles slated for release later in the year. However, I was particularly excited about the release of Whisper of the Heart, the 1995 Miyazaki scripted, Kondo directed film based on the manga of Aoi Hiiragi. Why? Well, let us take a step back for a moment and examine Studio Ghibli’s best known for its lustrous fantasy adventures and fairy-tale settings, the studio is often thought of in the West in terms of films such as Ponyo, Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Pom Poko. As a die-hard Ghibli-ite, I adore these movies, their richness of style and story-telling, their (mostly) female protagonists, and their true originality. If ever you are feeling down, pop Totoro on and you’ll be smiling again before you know it. But for me, my real appreciation of Ghibli came when I started to watch their more ‘human/adult’ output/films with less (if any) fantastical creatures and fairy-tale landscapes and more true-life themes, messages and settings. Yes, all Ghibli films introduce us to morals, ethics and alternative viewpoints, and the quirkiness of the characters and situations within these films helps the pill go down. But it wasn’t until I saw movies such as Grave of the Fireflies, Ocean Waves, My Neighbours the Yamadas, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart, that I could understand just how different Miyazaki and his team were as story-tellers, and how far Western animation has to come to catch-up and to be able to feel confident to be able to tell such stories.
So, back to Whisper of the Heart. The film tells the story of schoolgirl Shizuku Tsukishima and her search for a purpose in life. As she is heading towards high school and possibly university, she has big decisions to make, but she is uncertain of the path to take. One day, she follows (or is she led by?) a large cat through the suburbs of Tama New Town (a suburb of Tokyo) eventually reaching a beautiful neighbourhood and a small antique store. Within the store is a beautiful ornamental grandfather clock, being restored by the aged store-owner, as well as a small statue of a cat, called The Baron (small spoiler alert ? the large cat and The Baron reprise their roles in the film The Cat Returns?keep an eye out for small clues as to their motives). ‘The store is also home to a boy who has been borrowing all the same library books as Shizuku’ something she finds faintly romantic. He is an apprentice violin maker, due to head off to Europe to study.
The film tells of the blossoming romance between the two, and Shizuku’s attempts to define her future as a writer, while stumbling through the early steps of her first ever relationship.
So is it any good? Yes. Honestly, truthfully it is a superb, funny, clever, heart-warming film that makes you laugh and think and consider. A Ghibli film with no fantasy creatures and a suburban setting may sound dull, but I promise you this is far from that. Every character is brought to vivid life, not just through some sumptuous artwork, but through exquisite character-study, scripting and interaction. From the disinterested and distracted academic parents and ?been-there-done-that? older sister, to the old store owner and his musician friends, everyone in this film feels real, alive and relevant. The two leads (although this is mostly Shizuku’s film) are relatable and avoid the whininess of Western youth protagonists. Seiji (our young violin maker) is possibly a little too perfect, a little too eager but then we are seeing him through Shizuku’s eyes, and for her this boy is all these things and more.
For those who prefer their movies with more Miyazaki magic (now THAT could be a marketing sell-line, surely?!) don’t despair. The Tama New Town setting, from winding hillside roads, schools and offices, to old stores, strange alleyways and steep stairways is beautifully drawn, holding a mysterious air of newness and oddity. It may not be the lush countryside of Totoro, but it is what is left of the Tama Hills from Pom Poko, which offers a fascinating insight in to the evolution of the region. And if fantasy really is your lynchpin, fear not, as Shizuku writes her first story (about the life of The Baron) her imagination takes her on a fantastical journey, featuring some of the most beautiful and remarkable landscapes you?ll find in any Ghibli film.
For me, Whisper of the Heart stands up to the more famous films, and can sit alongside them in the pantheon of “great animated movies”. This is because it is exactly that?a great movie that just happens to have been animated. It might work as a live action film, but a lot of the warmth, personality and mystery would be lost, I fear. Once again I’ll assert, as I have with so many Ghibli films, that this is a film only Ghibli could have made, and made such a success of.
So we’ve ascertained it is worth watching, so is it worth watching on shiny new Bluray? I am happy to report that the BD/HD conversion is a success. The colours are vibrant without any sign of washing-out or bleeding, the age of the film doesn’t show in any way, and the soundtrack is beautifully rendered (it is that rarest of beasts, a Ghibli film with music NOT by Joe Hishaishi!) I’m not sure if it is just me getting used to BD releases, but I did feel that this conversion wasn’t quite as stunning as the Nausicaa disc, but it could also be that the previous DVD releases were so clean that there doesn’t appear to be such a step-up in quality. Suffice to say, the film looks and sounds amazing, you get a small but decent selection of extras, including some beautiful step by step artwork, and the usual (sadly not updated but great pieces of archive) Ghibli trailers.
It is fantastic to see Whisper of the Heart being released so early in the cycle of Ghibli BD releases. Sadly the director, Yoshifumi Kondo passed away in 1998 so we were deprived of his genius, vision and storytelling. A possible successor to Miyazaki was lost that day, but we have Whisper of the Heart to remember him by, and this BD release is a fitting tribute to a talented individual. So pop that shiny disc in, sit back and let yourself be immersed in yet another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli.