Whisper of the Heart - Yoshifumi Kondo was a key animator on many Studio Ghibli features and tipped as one of the directors to take over from Miyazaki who was considering retirement, but sadly passed away in 1998 after directing this debut feature. His long career in Japanese animation stretched back along with Miyazaki and Isao Takahata before they formed Studio Ghibli together.
14 year-old bookworm Shizuku Tsukishima is about to enter high school and needs to prepare for the entrance exams over the summer, but is more concerned with achieving her aim of reading 20 books over the holidays. As she works her way toward her goal, Shizuku notices that the same boy, Seiji Amasawa, has already borrowed every book she chooses from the library, and she begins to wonder just what this boy could be like.
One morning she has to take lunch to her father at the library, and on the train she sees a cat is a fellow passenger which she can't help but follow, eventually leading her to an old curiosity shop full of beautiful items including the statue of the Cat Baron, Baron Humbert von Jikkingen. A boy that previously mocked her for a song she was writing for a friend is the grandson of the shopkeeper, learning to make violins in the basement, and as she returns to the shop for all its story-rich treasures she runs into the boy more often and finds inspiration to make stories of her own.
Breaking away from the fantasy fare for which Ghibli is more famous, Whisper of the Heart is more of a down-to-earth love story. The character artwork will be recognisable to anyone familiar with the studio's other films, and the intricately detailed backdrop of Western Tokyo complements these distinctive individuals. With so much going on in each scene, the artwork really brings the story to life. Sonically the film is satisfying too, being as it is a picture about art and artists with versions of the song 'Country Road' cropping up throughout and Seiji's talent for playing the violin as well as crafting them making for the odd musical interlude.
Whisper is a gentle film that takes its time to show us its teen leads finding first love and discovering who they want to be. It's fair to say that it won't be for everyone with nary a whiff of an action scene to be had, but the coming-of-age drama on offer is top notch and will appeal to anyone who is happy with a good tale well told. The characters are well written without resort to stereotype (except perhaps the kindly old shop-keeper) and despite the ordinary setting the film manages to exhibit an air of magic here and there, effortlessly portraying the joys and woes of youth. It's great! If you can go for a bit of high school drama you'll find few better, animation or not.
With clean, clear, anamorphic widescreen visuals and Dolby Digital 5.1 on offer (this was the first Ghibli feature to be recorded in Dolby Digital) the presentation for Whisper of the Heart is hard to fault. The English dub offered alongside the Japanese original alters the script but stays true to the tone, though while the acting is decent enough it does seem noticeably odd to have the characters speak with such firmly American voices, especially with a 'real-life' setting in present day Tokyo as opposed to the realms of fantasy. In any case it can't hurt to be given the choice, as that is what DVDs are good for.
Another workout for DVD functionality comes with the angle option that you can use to switch between the film and the storyboards to get a better insight into the production. The sequence of background artwork for the Baron's story (a segment in the film where Shizuku's story comes to life) is a little disappointing, mostly consisting of showing the different layers of the background in isolation but offering little extra detail for the beautiful art and nothing in the way of design sketches for the ideas. The long Ghibli showcase reel appears on all the Ghibli releases and serves as a good taster for the other titles available.
Studio Ghibli have the uncanny ability to produce films that are at once beautiful, entertaining and moving, and Whisper of the Heart is yet another gem in their collection. It makes it all the more sad that it was Yoshifumi Kondo's first picture with perhaps the best yet to come. A must have for fans of other Ghibli films, this is recommended to anyone who likes their animation to have a bit more to it than fights and explosions. Any fans of the Cat Baron will be interested in seeking out The Cat Returns, a later Ghibli picture based on his character and his efforts to rescue a schoolgirl from a strange fate in the Cat Kingdom.