In the mid-nineties, years before Hayao Miyazaki achieved global acclaim with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, he and his Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata were already looking for talented animators to succeed them as the animation studio’s head directors. With Yoshifumi Kondô, an animator who had worked with the pair for over a decade, they believed they’d found their man. But, as the young Shizuku Tsukishima says in Kondô’s feature debut, things don’t always turn out like they do in fairytales, and the would-be inheritor of the Ghibli mantle died suddenly, aged 47, after making only one film, 1995’s Miyazaki-penned Whisper of the Heart.
The film tells the story of Shizuku Tsukishima, a young girl nearing her high school entrance exams and unsure what to do with her life. Spending her days reading fairytales and writing new lyrics for songs (translating them from English in the Japanese version), Shizuku longs to write but doubts her abilities. Can a mysterious fellow library-goer, an old antique shop owner and a statue of a well-dressed cat help her find her purpose in life?
Whisper of the Heart is every inch the Ghibli film, though more in the vein of Takahata’s Only Yesterday and Goro Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill than any of the elder Miyazaki’s fantasy works. The studio’s lauded animation shines in every frame, the grey streets of Tokyo blossoming into life through the beautiful detail of the clouds moving through the darkening sky, or the mottled sunlight seeping through the trees at the end of a narrow alleyway. One watches the movements of the charming and grumpy cat Moon and marvels at the realism captured in 2D by the pens of the animators.
A similar naturalism is found in Miyazaki’s script, adapted into English by Cindy and Donald Hewitt, which depicts the lives of its teen characters with an honesty and understanding that belies the fact that the writer was in his fifties when the film was released. The embarrassment and awkwardness of teenage crushes – and the fury at your classmates suggesting that that jerk you totally don’t like even one teensy-weensy bit is actually your boyfriend – is captured with a non-judgemental compassion that is rare for writers when dealing with what is too easily dismissed as hormones and teenage silliness. Shizuku’s identity crisis (“I miss the old me,” she remarks to Moon as they sit outside the antique shop) is similarly sensitively handled, the script superbly in touch with the pressures and changes of teenage life.
Kondô’s direction treats the film’s subjects with similar care, pairing the dialogue with expressions and gestures that rival Miyazaki’s script in their perceptive portrayal of the young protagonists. The pace is leisurely, but never drags, displaying a confidence in the character drama to engage the audience through scenes of family meetings and teenage heart-to-hearts. Whisper of the Heart is a film to make you miss all the masterpieces Kondô never got to make, a loss that, with the passing of Isao Takahata last year and Miyazaki approaching eighty, grows stronger with every watch.
Whisper of the Heart is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.