Ghibli Retrospective: “Whisper of the Heart”

What a charming film, and what a tragic history behind it. “Whisper of the Heart” was written by Miyazaki, produced by Miyazaki, and had its storyboards supervised by Miyazaki, but it was not directed by Miyazaki, nor Isao Takahata. The director of “Whisper of the Heart” was Yoshifumi Kondō (creating that line over the o is annoying, so with all due respect to Kondo I’m done with that). Ghibli had a significant problem, then and now, of developing a new class of directors once Miyazaki and Takahata retired (the problem is so significant, in fact, that after Miyazaki’s latest non-retirement is was an open question whether or not Ghibli would be making any more films at all). Some people rose up and made good films – Goro Miyazaki, who directed “Up on Poppy Hill”, Hiroyuki Morita, who directed the sequel/spinoff “The Cat Returns”, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” – but none of them were truly designated the successors to the Ghibli brand like Kondo was.

Kondo was to be the next Miyazaki – indeed, Miyazaki himself had essentially hand-picked him as his successor. And it’s hard to ask for a better debut than “Whisper of the Heart”. Tragically, though, Kondo died not long after “Whisper” of an aneurysm, which Miyazaki himself blamed on overwork (another way of saying that he blamed himself for Kondo’s death, being the one who pushed him so hard).

And it’s such a shame, not only for him and his family, of course, but for the world, because “Whisper of the Heart” is truly an excellent film. I’d probably rank it above at least “Ponyo” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. “Whisper of the Heart” is the story of Shizuku, a young teenage girl on the cusp of her entrance exams for high school, but whose real ambition is to be a writer. Shizuku struggles from insecurities about her art, as well as the normal trials and tribulations that a young Japanese girl goes through regularly in suburban Tokyo. Along the way she discovers that a boy named Seiji has been checking out the same books as her at the library, and after rocky introductions the two fall in love quickly thanks to their shared ambitions – Seiji wants to be a violin craftsman.

The more I think about this film the more I realize how much I liked it. The movie is clearly a movie for girls, but it’s more than that. It’s a movie for writers. I don’t know a writer in the world who can’t empathize with Shizukui’s lack of ideas followed by her sudden burst of inspiration that causes her to spend up to four in the morning writing. This happens to me all the time; I’ll be run dry of ideas, and then I’ll get the BEST IDEA EVER, and I’ll have to get the story out RIGHT NOW. It is more than once that I have stayed up until four in the morning writing.

And I can empathize surprisingly well with Shizuku’s romantic life. There is a scene when Shizuku, who has never really shown interest in boys before and is quite shy, is talking with Seiji alone, but unbeknownst to her the entire class is hiding behind a nearby door and eavesdropping. When she figures it out, she’s furious.

This is me. I am not outgoing, and so people find it amusing or entertaining when I take an interest in someone, and I HATE that. I have made excuses to leave my house in order to talk to people without worrying about eavesdropping, so Shizuku’s reaction rang VERY true to me.

The direction in the movie is indeed fantastic, if not quite flawless. Some of Kondo’s visual themes and motifs are brilliantly subtle, to the point where I’ve had to read other reviews to actually catch them, but some are rather on the nose, like the scene where Shizuku tells Seiji that she does not want to be a burden on his life, but wants to aid him, while she is helping him push his bike up a steep hill. This is effective, I suppose, but blunt enough that you can sort of see the gears working in the background. “Hey, you know what would make a good metaphor…” But it’s also something that is quite easy to chalk up to directorial inexperience, and his use of visual storytelling is so on point, so razor sharp in so many other places that his skill and talent is readily apparent.

The script is Miyazaki, and thus excellent. It is much less whimsical than most of Miyazaki’s fare (most; remember that one of the things that makes Miyazaki great is that he could tackle ideas from any direction and knock them out of the park regardless), but it has as much heart as any of them. The story is only barely less slight than “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but Kondo treats it with the utmost respect; maybe what’s happening here isn’t a big deal in the sense that, say “Princess Mononoke” or even “Porco Rosso” was, but it’s a HUGE deal for Shizuku, and Kondo doesn’t minimize that.

When a boy Shizuku’s friend Yuko has a crush on upsets her, Shizuku and Yuko are both angry, but also both mature enough to talk it over and come to a more rational decision about what to do about it. What happens to them isn’t something for us to laugh at, but a real crisis in their lives that they handle; the only difference is that it happens not to be the sort of crisis we face often as adults. Later, when Shizuku bursts into tears after hearing Nishi’s opinion of her story, we empathize and understand why. To Kondo, being a teenager just means you deal with different issues than adults do, not that they’re less important.

This goes all the way down to the controversial ending. Sure, a marriage proposal is sudden, and they’re too young to act on it anyway, but then the whole point is that being young doesn’t mean your decisions don’t matter. Miyazaki said that the reason he added that ending is that he wanted the protagonists to commit to something; again, it all comes down to respect for the characters. Their choices are not unimportant. They matter. Them being teenagers doesn’t change that.

The ending, by the way, is also EXTREMELY refreshing. Both Seiji and Shizuku, when given the option to go the path of the starving artist to chase their dreams, reject it, and choose to finish their schooling so they could come back to their ambitions after standing on more solid ground. There’s something particularly Miyazakian about that touch, a level of sophistication and maturity lacking in most western films.

Also worth noting: The love story might be the closest of all of them to the Miyazakian ideal of “Two people inspiring one another to live”. This is basically the sole reason Shizuku and Seiji believe they’re suited for each other; both of them are inspired by the other’s dedication to their dreams, and both agree to help the other fulfill them. You can see why Miyazaki decided to adapt the original manga in the first place.

“Whisper of the Heart” is an underappreciated entry in the Ghibli canon. It’s something of a bittersweet pill when you realize we’ll never have another Kondo film to watch, but he left us with – to use a metaphor from the film – a real gem. Perhaps it is rough and unpolished occasionally, but beautiful regardless. And, ah, when it sparkles…!

We’ll never know what Kondo could have been, but we know what he was, and that is the director of a beautiful, moving, and inspiring piece of meticulously crafted cinema. And that’s a better legacy than most of us will ever leave.

  • It is, incidentally, perfectly acceptable to replace the “ō” with “ou.” It’s a different style of Romanization, but no one who speaks Japanese will blink… It’s actually probably more common, come to think of it. You could also do “oo,” but that was OSU’s insane style of Romanization that is legitimate but makes sense only to linguists. At any rate, a long vowel in Japanese doesn’t change the sound, just the length– two beats instead of one.