Nov 23, 2012

[Movies] Whisper of the Heart / Mimi o Sumaseba (1995)

Tobie has been rather instrumental in formally introducing me to the wonderful animated movies of Studio Ghibli in all their glory. Naturally we went through the many Hayao Miyazaki movies first and eventually panned out to other Studio Ghibli works directed by others. One cannot immediately declare that these other movies are automatically bad or even just "not as good" as the primary Miyazaki features, but they are certainly rather distinct in tone and are certainly different in many ways.

With some irony, I had watched the sequel to Whisper of the Heart, that being The Cat Returns, first. It wasn't intentional - I had just become rather curious about the movie after seeing a lot of scenes from the film turned into animated GIFs over at the Tumblr site Studio Ghibli GIFs. And it was certainly a fun romp with an interesting mix of characters. So I was naturally keen no seeing where The Baron came from and all that jazz.

But this movie has a rather starkly different tone versus the sequel and thus I've come to understand why they say it was a loose sequel at best. While some characters do show up in both movies, the treatment and overall story are pretty different indeed.

Synopsis: Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba in Japanese, which translates as "If You Listen Closely") is a 1995 animated feature film based on the manga of the same name by Aoi Hiiragi. It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. It was the highest-grossing Japanese film in the domestic market the year it was released.

Young Shizuku Tsukishima (Yōko Honna / Brittany Snow) is a rather bookish Tokyo schoolgirl who lives with her parents Asako (Shigeru Muroi / Jean Smart) and Seiya (Takashi Tachibana / James Sikking).  As the movie begins, we join her in the odd discovery that almost all the books that she has borrowed from the library have been first borrowed by someone named Seiji Amasawa. This naturally piques her curiosity but how to determine the identity of this mystery bookworm is initially beyond her.

On another day, Shizuku encounters a rather large cat on a train. She follows him to an antique shop owned by Shiro Nishi (Keiju Kobayashi / Harold Gould) and there she first encounters an excuisite figurine of a cat dressed in a suit known as The Baron...and Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi / David Gallagher). However her mysterious library man turns out to be the boy who has been annoying her for some time now, and happens to be the grandson of the antique shop proprietor. Thus their odd friendship begins and we follow their and that of Shizuku's friend Yuko Harada (Maiko Kayama / Ashley Tisdale) and her own relationship woes.

Now perahps it's because the movie was really more of a love story with pretty much no magical elements that I wasn't quite as hooked. After seeing the Baron in action back in The Cat Returns, I'll admit my expectations were setup in totally the wrong way. And to have his character largely as a statue in this movie beyond a fantasy sequence in Shizuku's mind fell a bit short of those expectations. But that's just me.

When you move away from those kinds of expectations, the movie in itself is rather poignant when you get down to it. At its core, it's about the intricacy of relationships and how friendships can blossom into something more, given enough time and effort. And we're not just talking about romantic love, but there's also the bond between friends and the love of ones craft, in this case Shizuku's passion for writing.

The pacing is definitely "slower" compared to other Ghibli works, but that does not take away from the story or the beauty of the film as a whole. If anything, the slower pace to things give you more time to take in the events in the story and thus follow both the narrative progression and the slow growing fondness between the protagonists, just as one would in real life. This is not some whimsical fairy tale like love story that moves at the pace demanded by the likes of Hollywood. If anything, the greatest thing about this movie is how realistic it is, apart from the Baron's little fantasy sequence of course.

And yes, that was supposed to be the same Muta from The Cat Returns.

Whisper of the Heart is a lovely movie on its own right, but it definitely feels different from other Ghibli works. This is not a bad thing however - it just helps the movie stand on its own feet. Thus the movie rates 3.5 stories waiting to be writtin by Shizuku out of a possible 5.

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