Review: Whisper of the Heart

(Yoshifumi Kondô, 1995)
(A Review of the Blu-ray, originally posted at Lost in the Multiplex)

Cut from the same cloth as Studio Ghibli’s finest – from the fantastical Spirited Away to the whimsical My Neighbour Totoro, Whisper of the Heart once again exemplifies the animation studio’s interest in depicting imaginative narratives meshed within venerated realms of mundanity, where even the most distinctive flight of fancy is seen as nothing more than an extension of the everyday. Made back in 1995, the film marks the sole directorial effort of long-time Ghibli animator Yoshifumi Kondô, and is perhaps one of the studio’s most sober, mature and sweet-natured films to date.

Based on a manga series of the same name by Aoi Hiragi and adapted by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, Whisper of the Heart is a simple coming-of-age tale of first love and learning to unlock what your heart truly desires, set in an idealistic Tokyo suburb. Suzuku Tsukishima, the film’s protagonist (voiced in the English dubbed version by Hairspray star Brittany Snow), is a bookish, fiercely intelligent student nearing the end of her final year of junior high, who quietly dreams of becoming a writer. Surrounded by a studious, academically minded family, Suzuku spends her days devouring books and writing song lyrics for her graduation ceremony, awarding her respectable grades and the flirtatious attention of Seiji Amasawa, who teases her for her corny prose. Secretly harbouring a passion for violin making, Seiji inspires Suzuku to begin writing a fantastical story about a feline-shaped sculpture found in his grandfather’s antique shop, and together they comprehend their true paths in life.

Matching the likes of Pixar and their depictions of strong role models involved in allegorical adventures, albeit predominantly female ones, Studio Ghibli has become somewhat known for its positivity towards the importance of imagination and childhood memory, which is once again relayed here. Whereas their films are commonly known for innovative narratives and a distinctively zany atmosphere, Whisper of the Heart is a slower, more heartfelt piece that celebrates academia, education and staying true to who you really are, stressing the significance of school and the pursuit of dreams. Something of a precursor to 2002’s The Cat Returns, a prequel that explores the ornamental Baron Humbert von Jikkingen (Cary Elwes) at a more in-depth and extravagant level, the film slowly begins to break away from its calm storyline and delves into the fantasy world of Suzuku’s fictional fairy tale, where the barriers between reality and ingenuity become increasingly blurred before inevitably crashing back to normality. Teasing us with such dexterous backdrops, Kondô and Miyazaki clearly enjoyed straddling the line between actuality and fantasy, but eventually the film settles down and remembers the central romance it delicately began to weave, suddenly ending on a warm but ultimately blunt note. This is but a mere chapter in these character’s lives.

Utilising, for the first time by Ghibli, digital composition technology, which benefits the dreamy sequences of Suzuku flying through her creative dreamscapes, Whisper of the Heart looks wonderful on Blu-ray, emitting a glossy sheen that matches the pristineness of the animation. Suzuku’s hometown is constantly bathed in sunlight, complementing the hilly climate where every corner bestows a fascinating new neighbourhood, expressed in a scene where Suzuku follows a mysterious cat through the streets, the same cat who crops up again in The Cat Returns under the name of Muta. Although the extra content on the release is free of explicit behind the scenes material, save for a brief focus on the almost unrecognisable (save for Jean Smart and Harold Gould) English voice cast, there is more of a vested interest in the film’s artwork and visual accomplishment, one of the many highlights of Whisper of the Heart.

At one stage Suzuku looks out onto the elevated horizon and excitedly claims that she feels like she is up in the sky, and watching the film on Blu-ray elicits a similar, mesmeric response.

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