Whisper of the Heart Anime Review
Mimi wo Sumaseba
If you listen closely
US Release By
Shizuku is an entirely normal junior high school girl living in suburban Tokyo. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she notices a cat riding the train and follows it to an out-of-the-way antique shop where she meets a collection of colorful people. One fateful connection leads to another as she meets Seiji, a boy her age, and finds herself driven toward her artistic calling as a writer and her first love.
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Whisper of the Heart is a straightforward coming-of-age story of a girl's first love, her first sense of a calling in life, and her interesting experiences with an odd knickknack shop and its owner. Though a simple, mellow tale, it manages to give a sense of wonder to everyday places and does a remarkable job of capturing the thrills and heartache that mark the creation of art. From the opening credits, a cover of the John Denver classic "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the film exudes a warm, meticulous nostalgia not unlike a Norman Rockwell painting reflected on a Japanese background. Part of the credit for its uniform success at this goes to the steady hand and grasp of subtlety of the late Yoshifumi Kondo in his first and only directorial feature, and part goes to the realistic, detailed, beautiful visuals, from summer clouds to dense, lived-in neighborhoods and forgotten back alleys.
Whisper of the Heart comes highly recommended to anyone who isn't completely averse to watching a mild adolescent drama or a quiet slice-of-life movie. While it's perfectly suitable for a young audience, it will be just as delightful for the young at heart.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Whisper of the Heart is the story of a junior high school girl's first love, her first sense of a calling, and her interesting experiences with an odd knickknack shop and its owner. A simple, mellow, down-to-earth tale, it nonetheless manages to give a sense of wonder to everyday places and does a remarkable job of capturing the thrills and heartache that mark the creation of art. It is, simply put, a wonderful, masterfully crafted little piece of life.
It's obvious from the opening credits, which are accompanied by a cover of the John Denver classic "Take Me Home, Country Roads," that this isn't going to be quite like other Ghibli movies. Indeed, with the exception of a few flights of fancy seen through Shizuku's writing, it is completely devoid of the fantastic journeys, magic, and fantasy that usually characterize Ghibli films. Instead, it paints a surprisingly realistic, if rather idealized, image of life in a Japanese suburb--it captures about as much of the feel of Japan as any anime I've seen.
And, while the content may differ from more fanciful Ghibli films, Whisper of the Heart is something just as special. For one thing, it captures much of the drama of the first steps toward adulthood without ever seeming to take itself too seriously or take on any air of angst. At the same time, the story is never over-sweetened, and the characters never broad or oversimplified. In terms of a Ghibli comparison, it captures the same sense of wonder as Kiki's Delivery Service (which director Kondo was animation director for) without ever touching the realm of magic--almost an adolescent Heidi: Girl of the Alps for the modern era.
As a coming-of-age story, Whisper of the Heart is unusual in its focus on art as much as young love--its young protagonist is a budding writer trying to figure out not just how to express herself, but how the drive to create fits into her life. In this aspect the story is particularly realistic, and where it shines as a character study.
That's also where the film cleverly weaves in its theme song, as the protagonist attempts to write Japanese lyrics to Country Roads, a song about a nostalgia that she has no point of reference for. At one point she even tosses off a parody version, Concrete Roads, more suited to her life experience--amusingly, more suited to the experience of many American viewers as well. Even so, it's surprising how well the juxtaposition of a quintessentially American song and an outwardly foreign backdrop works; it evokes a familiar nostalgia for some place or time that seems lost but is, perhaps, just not visible unless one listens closely. That may not have been the intended interpretation of the whisper in the title, but I think it captures the emotional essence of the movie.
The other thing the film does amazingly well--and this is what makes it so special--is capture the wonder that the world and its tiny adventures hold when seen through the eyes of youth. A bicycle ride down a hill, a trip to a new neighborhood, a hilltop view, or an innocent romance--all these things hold excitement and beauty when you're young, and Whisper of the Heart captures that feeling exquisitely, sharing the sensations and emotions with those too old to experience them firsthand. In a way it's as if everything in the movie is viewed through the sort of rose-colored lenses that accompany happy childhood memories or old home movies.
The beautiful visuals deserve some of the credit for Whisper of the Heart's success at this. True, Studio Ghibli's films are always beautiful, but that's rather more of a challenge when your subject matter is a crowded apartment or a suburb. Yet every carefully-painted scene is either packed with realistic detail--the collection of tiny things that give places a lived-in feel--or highlighted by bits of natural beauty--some summer clouds, an old tree. That realism does wonders to help the plot work.
For example, the suburb being explored--not exactly prime entertainment material--isn't just generic houses in a row, as many movies would be content with, but filled with interesting-looking nooks and the sort of little backroads you only find if you take a walk through an old neighborhood. This both makes it feel quite real and gives it the necessary sense of childhood adventure.
I also found both the familiarity and "differentness" of the movie's realistic, outwardly dry scenes of people doing things around the house fascinating; almost familiar, yet engrossing to watch due to subtle cultural (or, more accurately, situational) differences. Supporting this, the character animation is fluid, precise, and full of life.
The meticulous attention to visual detail and understated style is less of a surprise when you consider that first-time head director Yoshifumi Kondo had extensive experience as an animation director, including on a number of Ghibli's more down-to-earth films. It's also telling that Kondo listed among his influences Norman Rockwell--parts of Whisper of the Heart are reminiscent of Rockwell's loving nostalgia reflected on a Japanese backdrop.
While Kondo wasn't exactly a novice--he had two decades of experience on big-budget productions--the confident hand evident in Whisper of the Heart is nonetheless impressive. It's easy to see why he was in line to become one of Ghibli's premier directors before his untimely death--his style is like a blend of Miyazaki's sense of wonder and Isao Takahata's sense of precise realism and nostalgia.
Getting back to the film, the Japanese version is believably cast and good overall, if not particularly dramatically challenging. The background music, by Yuuji Nomi, is quite pretty, but not outstanding and relatively subtle for the most part. True to Ghibli form, many of the scenes in the movie are without music, leaving only the onscreen action to set the mood--an underused technique, particularly in films that superficially look like children's fare.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed Whisper of the Heart, and I'd recommend it without reservation to anyone who isn't completely averse to watching a mild adolescent drama or a quiet slice-of-life movie. If you're the sort of person who hasn't lost the sense of wonder of youth, or wants to bring it back, the film captures that joy as well as any other I can think of. Of course, it should be enjoyable to youngsters too, but like Kiki's Delivery Service its appeal is only limited to the young at heart.
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In terms of story and mood it fits somewhere close to the midpoint of Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday. I Can Hear The Sea is also similar as a Ghibli film with a modern setting and a similar coming-of-age theme, but far more focused on teenage angst than adolescent wonder and art. Finally, The Cat Returns is, indirectly, a sequel, albeit a sequel to the story the protagonist is writing rather than the main one.
Notes and Trivia
The movie is based on a single-volume manga story by Aoi Hiiragi published in 1989; the Japanese title of both, "Mimi wo Sumaseba" (roughly "If You Listen Closely") is the same, while the English alternate "Whisper of the Heart" was added to the movie, as Ghibli does with all its films. The titles sound more different than they are; the implied end of the Japanese title is, presumably, "...you can hear the heart." Hence the slightly more explicit English version.
The story of director Yoshifumi Kondo is a true tragedy of promise cut short. Kondo had worked as an animator and animation director for two decades, including on most of Ghibli's films--he was animation director on Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki's Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, and subsequent to this movie, Princess Mononoke, as well as a key animator on Porco Rosso, I Can Hear The Sea, and Pom Poko. Whisper of the Heart was Kondo's directorial debut, and based in part on his success in that role he was expected to join Miyazaki and Isao Takahata as a Ghibli core director. Sadly, not long after finishing work on Princess Mononoke, Kondo died suddenly of an aneurism at the age of 47. Though there's no way to say for sure, in a particularly ironic twist for someone so talented, the cause was suspected to be overwork, something that may have factored into Miyazaki's more relaxed production schedule after Kondo's death.
The Cat Returns is sometimes called the sequel to Whisper of the Heart, which isn't exactly true. The main characters of this movie do not appear in it, and where Whisper of the Heart is a realistic story about someone writing a fantasy story, The Cat Returns is that fantasy story itself. The connection is Baron, the debonair cat at the center of the story-within-a-story of Whisper of the Heart--he's the title character in The Cat Returns. While there's no obvious connection between the little we see of Shizuku's story in Whisper of the Heart and the story of The Cat Returns, one could assume that the later movie is a sequel to the story she wrote.
US DVD Review
Disney's Whisper of the Heart release is in the same line as its other Ghibli DVDs, meaning it's been given top-notch treatment. In addition to an anamorphic widescreen transfer and 5.1 soundtracks in both Japanese and English, a second disc is included that has storyboards for the entire film set to the soundtrack. Other special features include interviews with the relatively high-profile English dub voice actors and the Japanese movie trailer and TV commercials.
Though there are a few things that probably wouldn't make the cut in a Disney movie targeted at very young viewers, it is appropriate for all ages.
Violence: 0 - Essentially nothing, though there is one dream sequence that very young viewers might find unsettling.
Nudity: 1 - One very brief and completely non-erotic shot of a big sister in her underwear.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Romance of the mildest kind.
Language: 0 - Nothing objectionable.