Watching Whisper of the Heart is a bittersweet experience, notable as much for what might have been as for what it is. With Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata both aging, the Studio Ghibli founders wisely decided younger directors needed cultivation if the animation studio was to continue long into the future. So Yoshifumi Kondo was tapped to direct Whisper of the Heart, a coming-of-age fable developed by Miyazaki, and the film was released in 1995. Unfortunately, Kondo's untimely death ensured that Whisper of the Heart would be remembered more as an epitaph than the debut of Stuidio Ghibli's next generation.
In many ways, Whisper of the Heart doesn't feel like a Ghibli film at all -- certainly not one penned by Miyazaki. The movie is subtle and deliberate, anchored firmly in the real world as opposed to the fantastic vistas of Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle. The touches of urban fantasy -- bordering on slipstream and magical realism -- are ethereal and fleeting.
Shizuku, a Japanese schoolgirl caught in that awkward transition period between child and woman, discovers that every book she checks out from the local library has invariably been checked out by a mysterious boy named Seiji. Shizuku becomes infatuated with Seiji as their paths repeatedly cross in way that can almost -- but not quite -- be explained only by magic. Anyone familiar with the popular anime import Sailor Moon will recognize the conflicted love-hate dynamic that rises between Shizuku and Seiji, but where Sailor Moon's stories looked outward to cosmic conflict, Whisper of the Heart chooses instead to look inward, to the uncertain souls of young people trying to find their places in the wider world.
Animation fans who already own the Studio Ghibli movie The Cat Returns may be aware that film is a sequel of sorts to Whisper of the Heart. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true. The relationship between the two films is an odd one. The Baron, a magical living cat statue heading up the mysterious "Cat Bureau" in The Cat Returns, is merely an inanimate statue here -- albeit one with sparkling eyes suggestive of something more.
Where the Baron comes to life is in Shizuku's stories -- a long fantasy novel featuring the dapper feline in all manner of spectacular adventures. Muta, the Baron's cranky, obese feline sidekick in The Cat Returns is present in Whisper as well, but his behavior is much more catlike and hints even less of the extraordinary -- unless you count cats joyriding on public transportation -- than the Baron.
While watching the film, I found myself slowing putting together a sort of continuity for myself, extrapolating that The Cat Returns is, in actuality, one of Shizuku's future stories as yet untold. This made a good deal of sense, at least to me, as the Baron and Muta are the only two characters present in both films, and Shizuku's stories are the only place where the Baron boasts the same personality, abilities and mobility in both films.
Alas, this simple bit of logic was thrown into disarray by Carey Elwes' interview amongst the bonus features, where he unequivocally states that the Baron in Whisper is much older and experienced than the Baron of The Cat Returns. So much for armchair logic. In any event, the film still works well, as long as you don't insist upon a seamless continuity.
After half a dozen Studio Ghibli DVD releases, Disney is finally getting the hang of packaging the second bonus features disc. The presentation of Studio Ghibli's storyboards has proven more than a little problematic, but with this disc Disney hits on something close to workable entertainment. The storyboards are presented in conjunction with the soundtrack, almost like the slowest, lowest-budget animated film in history. It's almost watchable in its own right, and does a good job of showing how the scenes were broken down and framed prior to the start of actual animation. With the sequential presentation, however, the viewer loses the panel-by-panel control of earlier releases. Much the same effect can be achieved with the liberal use of the pause button, but even so this improvement is still far from a perfect solution.
Another of the bonus features were the original Japanese trailers and TV spots. These have become some of my favorite inclusions on the Disney releases, if only to show how methodical and different the Japanese approach to marketing a film is. Some of the decisions made are brilliant -- others downright baffling. Some artistic style, it seems, simply does not translate between the two cultures.
There were only two real disappointments among the bonus features. The first was the obligatory "Behind the Microphone" feature. At this point, after a half dozen or so versions of this feature on other Ghibli discs, it feels as if the documentary crew just doesn't care anymore. Granted, it's hard to make "Miyazaki is a genius, so I just had to participate" come off as fresh the 500th time that exact same phrase is uttered, but there a rote, color-by-numbers approach here that borders on tedious, and the end result is surprisingly limp.
The other disappointment -- and the one I consider unforgiveable -- is the utter and complete lack of a bio feature on Kondo. The biggest cipher -- at least to American audiences -- of Studio Ghibli's legacy, it would've been quite nice to get a career retrospective of his work, along with rememberances by Miyazaki, Takahata and even the ubiquitous John Lassiter. Alas, this was not to be. Disney outright dropped the ball on an otherwise effective package, and because of that, the entire effort is diminished.
For casual viewers, however, that's nickel-and-dime complaints. Whisper of the Heart stands well on its own without relying on whistles and bells. The movie should find a ready audience among preteen girls ready to face the same personal questions Shizuku deals with, and the overall movie is honest enough to go down easily for those who aren't preteen girls. All in all, it leaves me wondering what might have been had Kondo lived to achieve his fullest potential.
The Movie Itself: 7 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10