When most British people think of Japanese animation (if they think anything about it), it’s either family fantasies such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle or the mad and violent world of adult anime. However there’s a lot more to it than that, with one vein being animation made specifically for teenage girls. Although not typical of the genre (there tends to be more of a fantasy element to most Japanese animation aimed at women), it’s into this field that Whisper Of The Heart fits.
Normally this movie would either never have seen the light of day in the UK or have gotten a tiny little niche DVD release. That’s not because it’s bad, but because traditional thinking would say there’s not market for it. However thanks to the fact it’s made by Studio Ghibli – the company behind the aforementioned Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle – and has a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, the 1995 movie is getting a Blu-ray release.
The film follows teenage girl Shizuku, who loves reading and writing. She’s surprised to see that all of her library books were also taken out by someone called Seiji Amasawa. She thinks he must be a great guy, but when she runs across the real Seiji, she takes an immediate disliking to him. However slowly a small romance begins to blossom after she gets to know Seiji, who dreams of making violins but is being forced in a more mundane direction. Meanwhile Shizuku also begins to write a story called ‘Whisper Of The Heart’ after being encouraged to face her fears by Seiji’s grandfather.
In some respects Whisper Of The Heart is the Studio Ghibli version of a Judy Blume type novel. It’s not massively eventful and to western eyes it seems odd that they bothered to animate it at all. It would be kind of like the BBC had decided Grange Hill should be an animated show. However in Japan it wouldn’t be seen as strange, as it works. Whisper Of The Heart is sweet and earnest, with a screenplay that that allows Shizuku to slowly and rather beautifully unfurl. There aren’t that many movies that successfully show you a child becoming a young woman, but Whisper Of The Heart manages it.
It delicately yet penetratingly probes the youthful fears and excitements of early romance, as well as the fear of failure and the pressure between following your dreams and being practical. While most films want to look at the big picture, as the title suggests Whisper Of The Heart is about the small, very personal struggles of teenage life and trying to emerge from being just a member of a family into a young adult in your own right.
The film has a few small fantasy sequences (based on Shizuku’s story and imagination), but it’s mainly just a look at teenage life in animated form. To western eyes it is unusual, but it works and is surprisingly affecting.
The Blu-ray gives everything an HD spruce up, which looks extremely good. The print is very clean and bright, bringing out the animation skill of Studio Ghibli and allowing you to see the flourishes that set Ghibli apart from its competition. HD really was made for animation, whether CG or handdrawn, and while Whisper Of The Heart was first made back in 1995, it still looks extremely good at 1080p.
However if you find yourself somewhere without a Blu-ray player, the new release comes with a DVD copy as well. It’s also worth pointing out that film contains both Japanese and English audio. Although Japanese is best for purists, the English translation isn’t bad, although it does make Shizuku and her friend’s obsession with John Denver’s song ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ seem extremely odd.
There’s a decent selection of special features, ensuring this is a strong release all round. It may be an unusual piece of animation for us in the west, but it’s worth opening your heart to.
Overall Verdict: A sweet and moving tale of the small scale pressures and dramas of growing up, Whisper Of The Heart isn’t what we expect from Japanimation, but it works.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac