At this point in the series, I’ve written about seven Studio Ghibli pictures, and all of them have been directed either by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. There is no question that those two men are the masters whose talent helped made Ghibli one of the most reliable production houses in the world, but by the mid-nineties, Ghibli had officially become a powerhouse studio, with its movies topping the Japanese box-office more often than not. What one was the dream of a studio that would allow Miyazaki to make the movies he envisioned in his imagination had turned into an blooming business venture, and as we all know, relying the future success of a company in the work of two men is not a good business venture.
This is why Miyazaki looked through the ranks of Ghibli for a younger talent that could become his successor, and found Yoshifumi Kondo, an animator nine years younger than him, who had worked on the five most recent Ghibli projects. But as we know from Kiki’s Delivery Service, which started out as a smaller project for Ghibli’s younger animators and ended up being taken over by Miyazaki when he concluded that no one but him could make the movie he wanted, he is not exactly the easiest person to please. So the remarkable thing about Whisper of the Heart is that despite the fact that it went into production with Miyazaki having a very hands-on role -he wrote the screenplay, based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and oversaw the storyboarding process- he eventually stepped down, and left the project on Kondo’s hands.
This is a remarkable moment in Ghibli’s history, because even if Whisper of the Heart is not quite on the same level as Ghibli’s masterpieces (but then again, not many movies are), it shows the promise of Kondo as an auteur that shares certain sensibilities with Miyazaki and Takahata, but has a voice that is clearly his. There is, however, a tragic part to this story, because on January 21, 1998, Kondo died of an aneurysm at the age of 47. His death was supposedly caused by an excessive workload, a fact that prompted Miyazaki to announce his retirement, but later settle for a more measured pace for the production of his movies.
The death of Kondo is a blow from which Ghibli hasn’t fully recovered. yet The Studio has certainly produced many commercially and financially successful movies since this tragic moment, but in the meantime, it has failed to meet the goal for which Whisper of the Heart was made in the first place: it has failed to find a successor to the Miyazaki-Takahata dichotomy. Earlier this year, Miyazaki announced his (apparently actual) retirement; an announcement that has forced the Studio to put all productions on hold, and take a moment to reassess the direction Ghibli will take in the future.
But that is a conversation for another time, right now we want to talk about Whisper of the Heart, and why there is a persistent idea that out of all the younger people that directed movies for Ghibli, he was the most likely to rise up to the level of its two founding masters. This view is certainly affected by the fact that we never got to see a second Kondo movie, but if you look at Whisper of the Heart, you not only have a very solid movie, but a director who is interested in serving character above all else, to the point where I was trying to describe the plot of the movie to my girlfriend, and couldn’t really do it.
I guess you could categorize it as a coming of age story, but it takes place over just a couple of days, and by the end of the movie, it’s not so much that our girl protagonist has become an adult, but that she is… contemplating the idea of what will happen in her future? Yes, that’s it. The most truthful thing about Whisper of the Heart is that it isn’t about some bullshit tale in which the kid goes through some sort of adventure and learns lesson about herself, this is a story about that very real moment in which you realize that you are going to be an adult someday, and that said day will come sooner than you thought.
Anyway, let’s get into some of the plot. Our protagonist is 14-year-old Shizuki, who is just starting her last year of Junior High. She is an ardent reader, but curiously enough, all the books she checks out of the library have been previously checked out by one Seiji Amasawa. One day, she sees a funny fat cat on the train, and decides to follow it to an old antique shop run by a kind old man that, oh surprise, turns out to be Seiji Amasawa’s grandfather. That last bit could be thought of as a little bit of a spoiler, but the plot is so far down the list of things that make Whisper of the Heart worth watching that I don’t think I’m really ruining anything.
From that description you will surely agree with me on that not much happens in the movie. There is really not much in it in the way of plot points, big reveals, or anything like that.The main conflict comes when Shuzuki realizes she hasn’t really done anything with her life yet, and that according to her, she doesn’t have any skills (never mind the fact that she’s a fourteen-year-old). Things happen in such an understated and natural way that when the movie starts moving towards its last act, you realize how much time has gone by without there being a clear direction to the story. On that front, one must give the movie infinite kudos, for what could be seen as a weakness in any other story, ends up being a crucial formal decision that, for the lack of a better way of saying this, puts us in the headspace of the protagonist.
From that description, you could also gather that this is a very realistic movie. And despite being written by Miyazaki, very different from the fantastic adventures that he is known for. The most relevant precedent in Ghibli’s filmography for Kondo’s debut is Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, and even then there is a clear distinction between the movies’ styles beyond their realistic plot-lines. Takahata very clearly used stylization (both in the visuals and the dialogue) of the flashback sequences to achieve an overwhelming emotional climax. And as we know from having seen some of his other movies, Takahata is also very much interested in transcendent themes. Kondo’s approach, on the other hand, is completely about remaining true to the truth of the story, which in this case means giving over to the most realistic and least fanciful of all the Ghibli movies up to this point.
The movie does feature a brief fantasy sequence in which Shizuki envisions the novel she is trying to write as a way of proving that she can be good at something (the story is based on a cat statue she finds at the antique shop, of which we will talk more about in a later installment of this series). But even then, the sequence is very brief, and most of the movie is as mundane as you could imagine. And I don’t mean “mundane” as some sort of diss. This is the perfect fit for this movie. It is rare for a movie to commit so fully to being a portrait, and even if it may seem a little too inconsequential, and its emotional heights are not as overwhelming as Only Yesterday‘s (although it does with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” something similar to what that movie’s finale did with “The Rose”), it is still a valuable movie, and a great starting point for wondering what Kondo’s career as a director would have looked like.
Next Time: Miyazaki goes epic, and starts being noticed as a master in the west, with Princess Mononoke.