On Monday 19th May Studio Canal are releasing two new Blu-Ray/DVD combos of films from Studio Ghibli: the surprisingly violent (for a kids film) Princess Monokoke and fantastical The Cat Returns. However, as the latter of these two is a spin-off to another, earlier Ghibli film, it is probably best to examine this film before we move onto the others.
Whisper of the Heart was released in 1995, and is adapted from a 1989 film by Aoi Hiiragi. The screenplay was by company co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, but notably it was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo was the first person beside Ghibli’s principle founders, Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, to direct a Ghibli film. It would also prove to be the only film Kondo would direct, as he died suddenly in 1998. This death led to one of Miyazaki’s announcements of retirement, although he returned again. Miyazaki has since announced his retirement (again) last year.
Whisper of the Heart is a children’s drama, focusing on a Tokyo schoolgirl called Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old bookworm who is mainly busy translating the country song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” into Japanese for a forthcoming performance at her graduation. Shizuku suddenly discovers that all the library books she has borrowed have been previously been taken out by the same person, Seiji Amasawa, and thus wants to meet him. At school her only problem is a certain unknown boy who keeps annoying her.
One day Shizuku goes to her library via train and on the way a cat sits next to her. The cat gets off at Shizuku’s stop and she decides to chase after the cat, eventually taking her to an antiques shop run by an old man. Amongst the items there is a doll of a cat in a suit and top hat called “The Baron”. She also discovers the grandson of the owner is the annoying boy at her school, who is training as a violinist and violin-maker. What is even worse is that the boy’s name is Seiji Amasawa, and that he is about to leave Japan for Italy for two months to learn more about violin-making. However, the two become friendly and Shizuku becomes inspired to be creative herself, by writing her own fantasy story, with The Baron as the lead character.
Other than its director Whisper of the Heart is noted for its mixture of styles. For the most part it is a realistic drama, with a girl-meets-boy storyline adding a touch of romance to the whole piece. But then, when Shizuku decides to write her novel, the fantasy is played out as the viewer is taken into the world of the novel, which Shizuku titles “Whisper of the Heart”. It is full of strange flying sequences, floating islands and bright shining jewels. On top of this, you have the music, with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” being the main song, played throughout. In the opening you hear it being sung by Olivia Newton-John, it is sung by the characters several times, and then in the credits it is performed in full, in Japanese.
Perhaps not surprisingly, like most Studio Ghibli films, it was widely praised and took huge figures at the box office. In 1995 it was the highest-grossing Japanese motion picture in the domestic market.
Summing up this film is bit like trying to sum up last week’s anime, Fruits Basket. For most of the time it is simple, nothing too fancy, but then all of a sudden something thrilling happens. In Fruits Basket there might be a fight sequence; in Whisper of the Heart there are fantasy scenes. Whisper of the Heart of course is much more critically acclaimed. It has the big names and the big studio attached to it. This, like many anime before and after it, has a certain pleasant charm to it.
In the case of Whisper of the Heart, this charm was to carry on. The Baron became such a popular character that he would become the basis of the spin-off, The Cat Returns, which will be covered in the next beginner’s guide.
Whisper of the Heart is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal.