Studio Ghibli was no fool to tip Yoshifumi Kondo as the rightful successor to the legacy left by Haoyao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Yoshifumi Kondo, dead at 47, was only one animated film into a career which promised a new wave to the powerhouse Ghibli characterised by Miyazaki’s fantasy flair and Takahata’s painted realism. Whisper of the Heart, the only film Kondo directed before his untimely death, is a healthy dose of slice of life story, drama, comedy, teen romance, and at its core an urban fairy tale unlike any other Ghibli movies.
The film revolves around the life of a bookish middle school girl named Shizuku Tsukishima as she tries to juggle exam preparation, a school project to translate a pop song “Take Me Home”, housework and her goal of reading 20 books over the summer. That changes one day when she notices the name Seiji Amasawa appearing in all the library books that she borrows. Through a series of coincidences involving a talking cat and an antique shop where begins wondrous stories, Shizuku meets Seiji, whom she takes an immediate dislike. But the more she learns about him, the more she falls for him, and they encourage each other on their self-discovery path. Seiji sets out to become a master luthier, while Shizuku doesn’t have the slightest idea what she wants to do with her life. Whisper of the Heart is remarkably simpler in plot than any Pixar or Disney’s coming-of-age films. Rather, it’s has the gentle life-flow of something so characteristic of Yasujiro Ozu style.
Eschewing the expressionist flights of fancy most associated with Studio Ghibli films, Kondo brings a very realistic feel to the design, set in suburban Tokyo in the glowing summer, with its bustling crowds and high-density living. Most parts of the film are animated in subdued, earthy palette of colours, but there are hints of magic dotted throughout the film, whether it’s a Aladdin’s cave-like antique shop that has a grandfather clock that tells a story when it chimes, or a stray cat that takes a train. A lavish dream sequence involving a German cat in baron suit dancing in the transparent blue sky with Shizuku then takes us away from reality, but Whisper of the Heart is, after all, a film that uses the magic of the animated form to make magic out of the minutiae of everyday life.
Another highlight of the film comes from an ad-hoc chamber music rendition of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Coutry Road’? Who expects a simple tune from a slice-of-life animated film could bring a big, salty tear to your eye? The lovely song, played multiple times against a realist backdrop, makes the small moment in the films all the more pertinent and captivates your heart in a way only Studio Ghibli can manage. As a debut, Whisper of the Heart is not without detraction. The film could have ended when Shizuku figures out the best way for her to harness her writing skills and keeps in touch with Seiji. The final sequence, which involves some cheesy conversations between the lovebirds, and tries too hard to convey an uplifting tone, is what makes the film fall short of a flawless masterpiece.