Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Howls-moving-castleposterCertainly this newer addition to the work of Ghibli Studios and Miyazaki is not his best due to a lack of cohesion within the story-line and the rapid coming and going of characters.

However, with that aside, as always the animated landscapes and backdrops are as beautifully breathtaking as ever. It is yet another whimsical world that came partially from Miyazaki and also from its British source novel.

It is occupied by some wonderfully fascinating characters including the eponymous Howl, Calcifier, Sophie, and cute little Markl. I ended up watching the dubbed version with the voices of Christian Bale, Josh Hutcherson, and the always comical Billy Crystal. I think I was perhaps most appreciative to hear the voice work of Lauren Bacall and Jean Simmons. Their work in this film exemplified that their illustrious careers spanned well into their 80s. That is quite the feat.

I have to say that the dog and Turnip Head had to be two of my favorite characters. I’m not quite sure why… Still I would recommend this film and it is certainly a must for Anime or Miyazaki fanatics.

4/5 Stars

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

7eaa5-my_neighbor_totoro_-_tonari_no_totoro_movie_posterFrom the famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, this enchanting film is about two little girls and their very unusual neighbor Totoro.

The film opens with Satsuki and her little sister Mei arriving at a new home out in the country with their father. They are two energetic and rambunctious girls, who are excited by this new adventure. Their father is a kindly man, who spends a great deal of time with them when he is not working. Several other characters play a part including the elderly lady Nanny, the young boy Kanta, and of course the girls’ mother who is in the hospital. First, the girls chase dust creatures through their supposedly “haunted house.” Then, one day Mei follows a strange furry little creature under their house and then into the depths of the woods nearby.  She takes a tumble and all of a sudden she finds herself in the dwelling of a big fluffy Totoro spirit and falls asleep on its belly. When she tries to show Totoro to Satsuki and her father she cannot find him.

However, one evening as they wait for their father’s bus, Totoro comes to the stop, and this time Satsuki is introduced to the spirit who leaves them with a gift. After they spend another magical night with Totoro a few days later, the girls learn to their dismay that their mother is not coming home as planned. An annoyed Mei decides to take some corn to the hospital many miles away. Her disappearance causes a panic in the town, especially with Satsuki. She searches tirelessly for her little sister until her feet are sore. Her only other option is to plead with her neighbor Totoro to help her. Thanks to Totoro Mei and Satsuki are reunited and they see to their delight that their mother is in high spirits at the hospital.

This is certainly a film for children, but it would be unfortunate to call this a childish film. I must take a brief moment to praise the animation led by Miyazaki too. Every single image could almost be a painting they are so beautiful.  In my limited knowledge of anime, it is far above anything I have seen before. It was great to see this film in the original Japanese because it seemed more authentic, but what really struck me was the realistic nature of these young girls. Perhaps they speak a foreign language (to me) but their moods are universal. They can be extremely loud, they pout, share moments of laughter, and they love their parents.

Furthermore, this story does not need some major conflict to drive the plot. Their father is a loving open-minded man who does not even briefly doubt their adventures. I was even thinking that the obvious turn of events was that their mother would die and yet that is not the case. What this film really has is a wonderful innocence which can be appreciated by all ages. Instead of creating some major pathos we are simply able to enjoy this magical friendship between this remarkably cute fluffy spirit Totoro and these two girls. I certainly cannot wait for more from Studio Ghibli and I’m sorry that such an artist is retiring soon.

 
4.5/5 Stars