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Here Be Dragons: ‘Whisper of the Heart’

Here Be Dragons: ‘Whisper of the Heart’

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There’s something even more special about seeing the late Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart on 35mm. In its intended format, the work is on full display, affording its concern with creativity a more visible metatextuality.

The film is distinctly Japanese in two ways, in particular. First is its inclusion of breathing space between narrative beats, or “ma,” as screenwriter and animation legend Hayao Miyazaki once told Roger Ebert. It will take longer than an American viewer would expect from their typical experience of Western media received through osmosis for a character to reach an immediate destination, metaphysical or otherwise. Other seemingly pointless moments like a comment on the weather serve to cultivate a spacious naturalism crucial to maintaining its most important evocation, which is its relatability. Of course, this “ma” is common in all Ghibli films, but as this is one of their only pure slice-of-life pictures, it’s used here in its natural environment. This doesn’t necessarily make it work any better or worse than one of their fantasy films, but it plays into its other Japanese element.

That other element would be its subtle contextualization within a collectivist orientation, which is key to its success. The film has a gentle enough touch to allow itself enough stakes to work and still fit into a larger scale. This scale is executed almost entirely within these pillow shots, with background characters with a distinctive presence and multiple shots of the urban landscape from afar. These shots often pan down from a long shot to the narrative happening on ground level, which has a magnifying glass-like effect to further this idea. This is one of many stories about a person finding out exactly where they fit into society, and it’s maybe as universal as a film can get, though for some it may evoke a painfully tragic peak than a moment of transformation. And yet, even if that’s the case, it works (barring a jaded dismissal), thanks to this balance between the central story and fringe awareness of the bigger world the characters are about to enter.

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Ghibli’s propensity to have simple character models and detailed backdrops lends the film a synchronistic and rich visual accompaniment. The especial attention to detail in the representation of the arts and crafts suggests a glimpse into our characters souls not captured by the broad brush strokes that make up the cruder fiber of their physical existence, like the worthless part of a geode. The mere suggestion of a double feature with Inside Llewyn Davis might ruin this film forever for some, but the parallels to be drawn, especially on this front, would be particularly enriching.

An interesting aspect of the film is the disconnect between the quality of Shizuku’s writing in the sequences showing the story she’s writing, which is distinctly amateur, and the beauty said sequences are afforded visually. On the face of it, the inclusion of these sequences idealizes the underdeveloped artist, but in the second half of the film, when her creative process takes place, plenty goes wrong for Shizuku, and it’s all her own fault. It’s a delicate balancing act of seemingly unrelated traits that converges at one of the most understanding and nurturing looks at artistic obsession ever. Typically, this pursuit will be shown to eat the soul, but here it is the very definition of the soul. The only rebuke needed is Shiro’s supremely tactful acknowledgement that “it’s a little rough.” Miyazaki would later adopt the use of fantasy sequences to signify this similar magic of creation in The Wind Rises. The film avoids any condescension, carefully contextualizing naiveté within a nostalgic framework, and the result is simply adorable. Of the exceedingly few one-off masterpieces from one-time directors, Whisper of the Heart might stand as the most complete.

— Autumn Faust

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