Castles in the Sky: Whisper of the Heart, by Aaron Pinkston
For a studio that makes films largely for young females, Whisper of the Heart is a film particularly catered to this demographic. The lone film helmed by the man Hayao Miyazaki personally groomed to take over the studio, Yoshifumi Kondō, it takes place in East Tokyo and follows a young girl trying to find where she fits in this crazy world. In the scope of the Castles in the Sky series, its closest relative is Only Yesterday, though Whisper of the Heart takes the flashback portions of that film and runs them to nearly two hours. Shedding nostalgia for the inevitability of growing up, it’s sweet yet complex — so it fits right in with the studios other works.
This is a film that honors artists and their sacrifices. Told through the actions of a 14-year-old girl (we’re told she is graduating from junior high school, but I’m not sure if the Japanese school system is a bit different, especially given some of the attitudes and actions of these very, very mature kids) who dreams of being a great storyteller, she really only reads a bunch of books. In that way, she’s a lot like myself, wishing to make films but instead watching many, and so I felt a very personal connection with the struggles she goes through.
Reading a lot of fairy tales, checked out from the library, Shizuku realizes one particular name keeps coming up on the check-out lists. Around the edges of the film, she has interactions with a young man who is pretty clearly foreshadowed as her match, but he is slightly obnoxious and mean to Shizuku. Once she really gets to know Seiji, however, we all find out that he is much more complicated — the grandson of an antique shop owner with the great aspirations of being a violin maker in Italy. As he wins over Shizuku, she becomes worried that she’s not accomplished enough for the young man and frets the possibility of him leaving Japan before high school to never see him again. Their subsequent romance is as sweet and nice as the romantic plotlines of its Ghibli counterparts. It does come off a little stranger, though, given the ages of the protagonists and the seriousness of their emotions. There isn’t anything explicitly physical between the two, but given the fact that these two are presumably 14-year-olds professing their undying love and look forward to getting married, it gets a bit weird. Perhaps it’s something lost or changed in translation.
Speaking of which, one of the great features of the Castles in the Sky series is that theaters have both the original Japanese film, as well as the English-language version produced by Walt Disney. I’ve seen six Ghibli films now, about half in each language. Though I still prefer the Japanese audio, I’ve personally never been bothered by seeing the English dub — interesting considering how usually dubbings come off as incredibly inferior. Though the Disney production usually hires notable voice-actors (Whisper of the Heart involves Cary Elwes in a small but notable role, as well as Ashley Tisdale, Jean Smart), they never come off as stunt casting. A better example would be of their latest release, The Secret Life of Arrietty, with Amy Poehler, Will Arnet and Carol Burnett. If anything, the English voice-acting direction is more subdued, less animated, slightly monotone. By comparison, one of the Ghibli films I have seen with the Japanese soundtrack, My Neighbor Totoro, was over-the-top, loud and sometimes garish in the voice-acting.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Whisper of the Heart is probably the Ghibli film most appropriate for a younger, more female audience — of course that doesn’t mean adults and manly men can’t get something out of it, too. In true Ghibli spirit, the depth of theme is great here. There are themes we’ve seen before, such as the difficulty and importance of growing up, dealing family. Also, the opening gives us the Bob Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (a song which plays throughout the film and directly gets involved in the plot) played over busy cityscapes, harkening to the major theme of nature vs. city we saw in Only Yesterday.
A more important theme is simply the pursuit of dreams. We see Seiji reach some success and how it affects his relationship to Shizuku, who has a much more difficult time, due to pressures from society and her family. There is a specific stereotype of Japanese youth being incredibly successful and dedicated to school, which flies directly in the face of our two young heroes looking to quit school to follow their dreams. Though there are a number of great artists coming from this island, Japan’s society doesn’t seem to encourage people to forgo being a cog in society to be an individualistic artist-type. Of course the film works around the youth from making major decisions around their education, pulling back a bit to conform with the West’s vision of Japan.
All of this may make Whisper of the Heart seem super-serious or dull, but it actually has some of the biggest individual laughs of the series thus far — it isn’t consistently as joyful as Totoro, but you’ll leave with a smile on your face.