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Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo) 1995


    To respond to animated or kids films, many critics assume the role of a child. They try to speculate what will and won’t appeal to a child and disregard their own opinion of the film, to an extent. I can’t really do that. I have no idea what children like, and can really own speak for myself. I couldn’t possibly guess whether or not you’d like a movie, regardless of your age, I can only point out the things that I liked about one. That being said, I should say that my adult sensibilities slide into the animated work of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki more readily than most anything Disney or Pixar can churn out these days. They’re so completely filled with the whimsy that I find lacking in most boorish and loud American animated features. Whisper of the Heart, which Miyazaki didn’t direct, but did write and produce, is one of the best films to come out his Studio Ghibli.


    There’s a good deal of charm in the Whisper of the Heart, which follows a bookish 14-year-old girl as she discovers her first love, but it is tempered with a consistently high level of intelligence. Instead of giving us a sassy, know-it-all teen protagonist, Whisper offers us an appropriately confused girl that is intimidated by her first steps toward womanhood. As in many of Miyazaki’s films, the influence of  “Alice in Wonderland” is felt here, certainly the journey she takes is presented as a fantastic one, but this time the tale mostly takes place in the real world. Except for the occasional fantasy dream sequence, the animation strives for a charmingly stylized realism. The characters are amazingly emotive, and their enchanting mannerisms convey more of their emotional makeup than most child actors could. Instead of attempting to show us a fantasy world with their animation, the filmmakers use their medium to accentuate the small details in this one.


    It’s moments like these that lift Whisper of the Heart out of the ghetto where most anime lay and into the realm of truly great cinema. The film’s consummate humility elevates what could be the teenybopper toss off, and imbues it with an unusual dose of humanist sentiment. The few live action films that show teenage girls with this degree of respect (Man in the Moon springs to mind immediately) usually feel the need to punch the tale up with melodramatic twists. That Whisper does no such thing, opting instead to serenely study its characters on their terms, makes the work that much more special.


* * * *


Jeremy Heilman