April 05, 2006

Whisper of the Heart

Of all the Studio Ghibli productions, my sentimental favorite is Yoshifumi Kondo's Mimi o Sumaseba ("If you listen closely"), written and produced by Hayao Miyazaki (note the Kiki doll hanging over Shizuku's desk), based on the delightful manga by Aoi Hiiragi.

Shizuku, the teenager at the center of this coming-of-age story, lives an ordinary life with her danchi-dwelling middle-class family. Miyazaki's adaptation shifts the family down a socioeconomic rung from the manga. But this affectionate and straightforward depiction of lower-middle class Tokyo family life proves one of the pleasant surprises of the film.

You can find communities like this in western Tokyo, where the Kanto plain begins rising into the Japan Alps (the same setting as Initial D). Scenes in the movie bring back memories of the Odawara hills (at the foot of Mt. Fuji), and of bedroom communities on the Nankai line heading southeast out of Osaka toward Mt. Koya.

I lived in a similar danchi (apartment building) in Osaka, though newer and a bit more upscale. But the depiction is spot on, down to the futons airing out on the balcony railing.

Another thing that sets Mimi o Sumaseba apart for me is its depiction of the creative process. It's rare that a movie can talk about any aspect of literature, especially writing, without falling into glib stereotypes about "being an artist."

Miyazaki and Kondo find the right balance by analogizing physical craftsmanship (making musical instruments) with the harnessing of thought through the written word. In either case, artistry is ultimately the product of hard work and sacrifice, and not simply the unconstrained currents of the unfettered imagination.

All of Hiiragi's core themes, characters, and settings--especially the Earth Shop and Sir Cat--are faithfully preserved. In any case, this is not a case of the book being "better" than the movie, or visa-verse, but each standing well on its own and complementing the other.

The dub is well done, with voices by Harold Gould, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Jean Smart, and Cary Elwes putting in a cameo as the Count (the featured role in The Cat Returns, a companion film to Whisper of the Heart). Oh, and John Denver's "Country Roads" (vocal by Olivia Newton John) is in the original, too.

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