Fair or not, American filmgoers have a very narrow-minded view of animation. Only a decade ago animated movies seemed to be exclusively kids’ fare and it was assumed that they would follow a strict criteria: they should be adapted from time-tested fairy tales, impart solid moral lessons, and feature song-and-dance numbers and talking animal sidekicks that could be purchased in plush form. Whenever animated films tried to think outside the box (as with Anastasia or Titan A.E.), they ended up as box office failures.
Today things have slightly improved; the new wave of animated features, led by Shrek and the collective output of Pixar, contemplate adult topics like parent-child relationships or mid-life crises in between self-referential jokes and vertiginous action sequences. And on television South Park and Family Guy are able to get away with some pretty raunchy (that is, ‘adult’) material, for cartoon characters.
Even still, it’s understood in US culture that animation should never aspire to be straightforward drama. Maybe that’s why so many Americans tend to demonize Japanese anime, focusing on its most extreme elements – its occasional use of hyper-stylized violence or twisted sexuality – as a way of dismissing it entirely: they’re so baffled by the idea that anyone could take mere cartoons seriously that they have to write them off as just a perverted form of entertainment from the East.
Whisper of the Heart serves as a reminder that animation isn’t a genre but a medium, and a medium capable of telling any variety of stories. It’s a movie so gentle and observant that it’s hard to pin down with a single description. I suppose the quick response would be to label it as a ‘coming of age’ tale, although I don’t think that definition is a good fit. Coming of age stories follow adolescents who learn painful life lessons and are forced to grow up fast, and neither of those is the case here. More than anything else, Whisper of the Heart is simply a slice of life that avoids clichés or a conventional plotline, but instead lets us walk for a little while in one girl’s shoes and see the world as she does.
That girl is Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan. To the constant worry of her parents and older sister, she’s a daydreamer who ignores her schoolwork to write and read, losing herself in a fantasy world of her own design. When Shizuku sees that all of the books she’s been checking out of the library have already been read by a boy named Seiji (he’s listed before her name on the checkout cards), she begins to develop a crush on him, maybe without even realizing that that’s what she’s doing. Meanwhile she discovers an antiques shop full of oddities and starts visiting on a regular basis to converse with Nishi, the elderly shopkeeper.
Because Whisper of the Heart allows us to sink into the daily rhythm of Shizuku’s life, it also serves as an enlightening look at what everyday life in Japan is like (lest Western viewers think that the Land of the Rising Sun is all about Tarantino-style Yakuza turf wars or running in fear from Godzilla). Shizuku’s parents and sister are especially concerned about her falling grades because the Japanese educational system is notorious for ignoring individuality in favor of standardized achievement: good grades in middle school influence one’s placement in high school, and so on up the ladder until college graduation and one’s first job. By slacking off now, she might be impacting her entire future. And when Shizuku is asked to translate the American pop song “Country Roads” into Japanese for her class, she writes a parody entitled “Concrete Roads” that’s a sly dig at Japan’s recent obsession with destroying nature in favor of erecting ugly, industrial monuments, a trend that’s especially disturbing to a nature-lover like Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki.
Even if Americans don’t notice these uniquely Japanese references, most of the story touches on universal aspects of adolescence. Shizuku’s best friend confides in her that she has a crush on a boy, but that one of his best friends in turn has a crush on her. What Whisper of the Heart understands is that young romance is based on virtually nothing except our own certainty that the person we are in love with is perfect and the only one we can think of; there’s no attempt to understand those feelings or settle for someone else. The movie treats these feelings seriously – because they seem so deadly serious at the time – while acknowledging how desultory they really are.
Likewise, Shizuku’s relationship with her mother and father isn’t as one-dimensional as your average Hollywood film, where parents exist just to stand in the way of their children’s hopes and dreams. Her dad is impressed by the work ethic she’s shown in writing pages of her fantasy epic every day, but he also has words of caution: “Do what you believe in. But it’s not easy when you walk your own road. You’ve only got yourself to blame.”
And while the entire film is gorgeously drawn, the fantasy world of Shizuku’s fevered imagination is a singular delight and a potent metaphor to what she’s feeling in her real life. When she becomes frustrated with her writing, she imagines herself running through a cavern of glimmering jewels as a booming voice demands that she find the correct gem immediately. In another beautifully surreal sequence, Shizuku pictures herself floating through a landscape of flying islands. The staff of Studio Ghibli pours all of their talent into these flights of fancy and the result is hypnotic.
Rewatching Whisper of the Heart for the first time in years (I originally saw it as a fan-translated bootleg over the Internet, back in the days when anime DVDs were scarce) felt like revisiting old friends. I almost wanted to know how Shizuku and Seiji were doing now, and if they were able to follow through on their ambitions and realize their dreams. You know a movie has meant something to you when you care about its characters as if they were real people, even if they’re made out of ink instead of flesh and blood.
Aside from a handful of previews for other movies (for good or ill, Disney is the undisputed master of endless self-promotion), the extras on the DVD are a meager if curious lot. Disc one contains a behind the scenes featurette interviewing the voice actors for the English language translation. While they do a fine job (although they’re a little forced compared to the original Japanese voices), the piece suffers from the obvious fact that it’s too far removed from the creative roots of the movie, and everyone keeps repeating some variation of “I had a great time voicing this character!”
Disc two is entirely devoted to a special feature that Disney has provided for most of the Ghibli films thus far: the movie’s storyboards are presented with the finished soundtrack. I’m glad somebody thought to preserve this, but most of the storyboards are little more than abstract doodles and I’m not sure this is going to be of much value to anyone except the most diehard fans and budding animators.