Saturday, January 21, 2006

Whisper of the Heart (Kondo, 1995)

There is a moment early on in Whisper of the Heart where a young schoolgirl gets on the public transit system and is joined by a haughty cat that is riding without an owner, but certainly seems to know where it is going. Because the film’s script is written by Hayao Mayazaki, we half expect the cat to turn to the girl and talk or otherwise morph into some mystical creature. Though it stays mostly within the realm of realism and ordinary human interaction, Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart ultimately reveals itself to be a film every bit as magical as the fantastical films helmed by his mentor. Shizuku, the film’s heroine, is likable, but apart from her fondness for reading library books and composing alternate lyrics to popular songs, she is mostly unexceptional. And she knows it. Her parents are consumed with the humdrum routine of modern living. She attends school and offers advice to her good friend who has a crush on one of their male classmates, but her life does not exactly have a strong sense of forward propulsion. And so she looks for adventure in the ordinary. When she notices the same person has checked out all of her library books ahead of her, she fantasizes about who this mysterious person could be. Could they be destined for one another? When the aforementioned cat leaps off the train and leads her to an antique shop, she wonders what treasures could be contained within? When she first sees the Baron -- an unusual statuette of a feline man with glowing eyes -- she supposes that perhaps there is some mystical link to the ordinary housecat she has followed.

However, unlike most Miyazaki protagonists, Shizuku gets a bit less than she expected. At least, at first. There are no mythical woodland creatures or complex conspiracies or floating castles, but eventually Shizuku finds herself involved in a very special kind of love. It is here where the film delights us by venturing off in an unexpected direction. Rather than falling into the trap of constructing a drama solely around whether or not Shizuku will get her guy, Miyazaki and Kondo offer a heart-wrenching examination of finding confidence and self-worth. The central metaphor, involving a geode, is simple, but also striking and potent. Like that geode, many characters in Whisper of the Heart ultimately reveal themselves to be far more than they appear on the outside. And yet, the intense emotional attachment we feel is in large part due to the fact they are a lot like us – dreaming of the perfect versions of themselves and overwhelmed by the amount of focus and energy that are required to escape the pull of the mundane. Whisper of the Heart is a film of deep tenderness and admirable specificity. It offers new insights on a subject that has been tackled countless times before. It is dramatically engaging, aesthetically beautiful and, most importantly, thematically inspiring.



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