Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Whisper of the Heart

I really didn't know what to expect with this one. Whisper of the Heart was the first (and I think only) feature film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (or Kondou), who died at a relatively young age in 1998, three years after the film was completed. The screenplay, based on a manga by Hiiragi Aoi, is by Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and other animated masterworks. About all I knew when I ordered it was that it was a Studio Ghibli production and it had something to do with a cat.

Which it does, but really not that much. Though it's very much a Studio Ghibli movie, and though the US release is marketed as being “from the creators of Spirited Away,” Whisper is, outside of a few brief fantasy sequences, a much quieter, more naturalistic film than those statements might lead one to expect. It's also very appealing and beautifully made, a true gem.

The Ghibli films are sometimes contrasted with recent American animated features, generally much to the detriment of the latter. That's fair enough, but I think it may not go far enough. Whisper of the Heart has a humanity and integrity, an understanding of and respect for how ordinary people really live and act and feel, that Hollywood just can't seem to manage, even in live-action films. It may sound paradoxical that a “cartoon” could be less stylized, more down-to-earth, than a live-action feature, but in this case it really does seem to be true.

I won't attempt to summarize the story; if you're interested has a synopsis. It's basically a story of first love, centering on a girl named Shizuku and a boy named Seiji. There's also the cat, of course, in fact there are two, one an ordinary sort and the other a cat statue that has a very sad, romantic story attached to it. (The statue will come briefly to life, at least in the imagination, but the scenes in which that happens, although visually dazzling, are almost dispensable; this is, it should be stressed, not a fantasy film.) The settings and backgrounds are lovingly detailed, even by Ghibli standards, but not more so than the characters themselves. It's refreshing to see filmmakers who care enough about the people they have created to make sure to get them emotionally right. Do try to see it.