Whisper of the Heart
(Check out the previous essay in this series on all of the films from Studio Ghibli: Ocean Waves)
1993’s ‘Ocean Waves’ may have been Studio Ghibli’s first gamble at having younger animators, animators other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, take the helm to direct a feature-length animated film. However, that film was made for television audiences and the funding and money for the production was pretty financially secure. Ghibli had a deal with Tokuma Shoten and the Nippon Television Network to make the film and take a commission on it, thereby making money for the studio in the process. However, two years later, Ghibli would take a real gamble with 1995’s ‘Whisper of the Heart’: their first feature-length theatrical film not directed by one of Ghibli’s two maestros.
However, knowing that they would be gambling a lot of money on the production, they made sure to give the film to tried and trusted friend and co-worker within the Studio Ghibli fold: that man was Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo was an animator who had been in the business for almost as long as Miyazaki and Takahata. His work with the pair’s productions began in the 1960s and 70s as provider of Key Animation work on the ‘Lupin III’ television series, both early panda-films ‘Panda! Go, Panda!’ and ‘Panda! Go, Panda! Rainy-Day Circus’, and on the classic TV series ‘Future Boy Conan’ and ‘Anne of Greene Gables.’ Through the 1980s, Kondo worked as Animation Director on the ‘Sherlock Hound’ series as well as Takahata’s 1988 classic ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (an important job as Takahata cannot actually draw and relies heavily on his Animation Directors to create the visual worlds of his films) and Miyazaki’s 1989 film ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service.’ Finally, in the early 90s, before taking on ‘Whisper of the Heart,’ Kondo worked as Animation director on ‘Only Yesterday’, and as Key Animator on ‘Porco Rosso’, ‘Ocean Waves’, and ‘Pom Poko.’
If that wasn’t enough, his career outside of Ghibli productions, or pre-Ghibli productions by its founders, speaks volumes more. Before officially joining Studio Ghibli in January of 1987, he spent years at all of the following production companies doing work as a key animator, animation director, storyboard designer, and between animator: A Production Studios, Nippon Animation, and Telecom Animation film. From 1982-84, served as storyboard artist, pre-production artist, pilot film director, and finally general director on the American-French-Japanese co-production of ‘Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland’, the animated film adaptation of the Nemo comic series by America’s greatest, most influential comics artist Winsor McCay. Although the film had many problems along the way to completion and didn’t receive a premiere until 1989, Kondo’s work at a crucial early period in the film’s creation places him as one of its authors alongside the scriptwriter, and legendary science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, as well as one of two of the greatest French comics artist who ever lived Jean Giraud Moebius (the other being Herge). (American animator Brad Bird, of ‘Iron Giant’ fame, was also attached to the project for a short time)
‘Whisper of the Heart’ is the story of a young girl in middle school named Shizuku. Its summer time and she’ll soon be entering her final year before high school. Although she should be studying and preparing for her high school entrance exams, she is an avid reader and an avid procrastinator (two sensibilities I can understand all too well) and has decided to read twenty books before summer ends. But every time she finds a new book of fairy tales or adventure stories that interest her, she finds that one Seiji Amasawa has beaten her to it and has his name proudly printed above her own in the back of the book’s library check out cards. What is even more bothersome to her is that the few times she manages to find one that he has not yet checked out, they are often donated by one Mr. Amasawa. Shizuku can’t seem to escape the guy.
As she travels through Tokyo one day to drop off lunch to her scatterbrained father at his job at the local library, she sits on a train seat beside a large cat. That a cat should be riding the train at all is odd, but when he leaves at the next stop and seems to know where he is going, is altogether bizarre. She decides to follow the cat, who leads her to a neighborhood where he torments a barking dog by standing above him on a high fence in front of the dog’s yard. In the cul-de-sac where this occurs, Shizuku sees a shop window with a handsome, anthropomorphic cat statue in the window. She enters the shop and finds it to be a mysterious, but cozy antique store run by an affable old man who tells her that the cat statue is named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, or just The Baron for short. He next shows her a beautiful antique grandfather clock he is currently restoring that was found some years ago in an abandoned castle. As the clock strikes noon, some dwarfs are shown mining ore and one rises among them, a prince, who stares solemnly toward a pasture where a sheep turns into a princess for a brief few moments and looks back at him, longingly. The old man, Shiro Nishi, asks her if she believes, as he does, that the maker of this clock was a man who had been separated from his lover. She replies in the affirmative, transfixed by the beauty of the moment, then realizes the time has gotten away with her, and quickly rushes off to deliver her father’s lunch, promising as she leaves to visit the shop once more in the future.
But she has left behind his lunch. Luckily, the grandson of the old man knows where she is headed and arrives on bike to meet her and drop off the lunch to her. Later, she will develop a connection with the boy and learn that he is budding violin maker and has plans to visit Cremona, Italy where he hopes to train to become a world class violin maker. She will later learn, as well, that he is in fact Seiji Amasawa, and Mr. Amasawa, the man who donated so many books to the local library, and to her school library, is his father. When Seiji gets the go-ahead from his father and mother to go on a short stint in Cremona to test himself, Shizuku is heartbroken that she may lose the love of her young life before they even get to know each other well. She endeavors to become a person worthy of him and his excellence, achievement and resolution and decides to write a novel in the interim, while he is away.
When the two finally reunite, they have both developed their skills considerably, but are also both still yellow, still rough around the edges. But like the gems hidden within the geode shown to Shizuku by Shiro to motivate her to complete her book, they are in the rough and have many things to contribute to the world and society artistically through their future creations. Both decide to go to high school and to study hard for their upcoming high school entrance exams, and to work hard to develop their skills, whilst also endeavoring to remain together, encouraging one another’s talents, for the rest of their lives. A strong promise for such young teens to make, and one they will no doubt have difficulty in keeping, but one that is ultimately worth the effort and beautiful, if not in reality (they are a fictional couple after all), then at least in concept.
Like all great films aimed toward youth and young adults, ‘Whisper of the Heart’ is a potent view of what life is like for youth budding into maturity and entering a period of romantic discovery. It is a film that tells youths to aim high, but to take real, measurable steps toward achieving their goals. It is a beautiful tone-poem, which brings magic to life, not through spirituality or apotropaics or mystical mumbo-jumbo, but through the idea that life can be a journey when one’s travel partners are idealistic, kind, compassionate, though pragmatic and realistic simultaneously. ‘Whisper of the Heart’ breathes and quakes beneath its celluloid frames in a way unlike most other features (whether animated or no). It is a profound yes-saying to life, an affirmation, and a call to go forward bravely and soberly, with all of the vigor and beauty that youth’s rose-tinted glasses can give you.
It is no wonder that this film, with its essentially humanistic and affirmative core, its classical and light sound score by Yumi Nomi, and its constant reprise of John Denver’s classic ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’- a call for the trapped, existentially cornered city dweller to find his or her roots and go back to basics, away from the crushing corporatism and bureaucracy of urbanity- was the highest grossing Japanese film of the year in which it was released.
Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki looked like they had found their man to carry on the legacy of Studio Ghibli after they retired. And Kondo’s commitment to the company hadn’t wavered after the success of the film either. In 1997, he continued his work with the company as the Animation Director once more on Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Princess Mononoke.’ But he worked too hard for too long, and on January 21, 1998, he died suddenly of what coroners later reported as either an aneurysm or an aortic dissection. In a word, he died of karoshi, of that constant Japanese phenomenon of death by stress and over-work. He was 47 years old.
[Next up: The Cat Returns]