Whisper of the Heart (Japan Reviews)

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The Japan Times

First posted to the Nausicaa mailing list by Atsushi Fukumoto, July 16, 1995

July 11, 1995, Tuesday

Miyazaki Does Disney One Better

by Mark Schilling

Like Disney, Hayao Miyazaki has become a brand name whose animated films have an appeal that crosses age boundaries. Studio Ghibli, founded by Miyazaki and longtime collaborator Isao Takahata in 1985, has made several of the biggest domestic hits of recent year including "Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)" in 1988, "Majo no Takkyubin (The Witch's Delivery Service)" in 1989 and "Kurenai no Buta (Porco Rosso)" in 1992. In the process, Studio Ghibli films have gone head-to-head with Disney rivals at the box office four times --- most recently with "The Lion King" --- and beaten them every time.

Miyazaki's films, like Disney's "prince and princess" romances, have formulaic elements that identify them as surely as a brand logo. Again and again we see a spunky-but-sensitive young heroine on the brink of adolescence, a feline familiar (in "Totoro," memorably, the cat took the form of a four-legged bus), vaguely European settings created by a romantic free-associating sensibility (see Ebisu's Yebisu Garden Place for an example in red brick and mortar), and, most distinctively of all, flying scenes animated with a breathtaking dynamism and infectious joy (Miyazaki is an aviation buff).

Also like Disney, the quality of Miyazaki's films sets them apart; in their attention to detail, their charming blend of fantasy and reality, and their depth and complexity of characterizations, they leave most other domestic *anime* (animated films) far, far behind.

They may suffer from a lack of narrative focus and an excess of *shoojo manga* (girls' comic book) sentiment, but millions of Japanese movie fans, as Isao Takahata once pointed out to me, like busy narrative lines while not being overly concerned about coherence.

Shoojo manga, as we know, are a major domestic industry. The folks at Ghibli know exactly what they're doing.

The latest film by Miyazaki and first-time director Yoshinobu Kondo, "Mimi o Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart)," is a typical Ghibli product in many ways. The heroine, Suzuku Tsukishima (Yuko Honda) is a 14-year-old girl approaching the last summer of junior high school. Energetic and free-spirited, a voracious reader, she harbors ambitions to write.

Though she is willing to share her efforts with her best friend (including new lyrics to that *karaoke* standard, "Country Roads") at home she climbs into a shell and shuts out her parents and nagging older sister.

It's not that Mom and Dad don't care, but Mom is busy taking university classes and Dad, when not working at a local library, is busy writing books about local history that never sell. They can't spare the time to find out what the girl in the shell is thinking (Though Dad, an insightful if eccentric sort, can usually guess).

Suzuku is thus something of a Belle in embryo, but instead of a Beast, she meets a boy named Seiji (Kazuo Takahashi) whose blunt talk upsets and annoys her ("You'd better not use that line about a `concrete road,`" he advises her). By following a mysterious cat home on the train (yes, on the train --- the cat is such an experienced rider that it sits on the seat and cat naps), she also encounters a kindly old man who runs an antique shop stocked with wonderful treasures, including a cat statuette with strange, glittering eyes. The old man, she soon learns, is Seiji's grandfather. She also find out that Seiji harbors a secret ambition of his own: to learn to make violins in Cremona, Italy.

The story is almost daringly simple; Suzuku and Seiji quarrel until they fall in love. (We know that they are meant for each other when, early in the film, Suzuku realizes that every book she has borrowed from the school library has also been borrowed by Seiji. There are no disapproving parents, jealous rivals or evil spells to overcome.

There is only a trial of sorts; determined to emulate Seiji, who is already working to realize his dreams, Suzuku decides to write a fantasy in which the old man's prize --- the cat statuette --- comes to life. Will she win the approbation of her *ojiisan*, or learn that she is just another talentless wannabe?

This is not much on which to hang a full-length film, but plot has never been the real point of Miyazaki's movies anyway. What he and director Kondo give us is more of the usual Miyazaki magic, brought even more brilliantly to life in a down-to-earth setting. (Though the old man's barnlike atelier could have come from the neo-Mediterranean port of "Majo no Takyubin.")

The animators delineate Suzuku's character and tell us the story of her discovery of love and life though an accretion of small, vivid details, including the way she fumbles for the alarm clock and keeps forgetting her things. There are also moments, such as Suzuku's pensive walk down a shaded street, with the light and shadow playing on her slender form, that are poignant in their celebration of her youth, with all its promise, hope and uncertainty.

A Disney film, forever hurrying on to the next plot point, would usually spare little time for such seemingly extraneous details and moments, but they are the very soul of "Mimi o Sumaseba."

Accompanying the main feature is a Ghibli-produced short title "On Your Mark." Originally conceived as a music video for a Chage & Aska song of the same title, it is an sf fantasy as busy and extroverted as "Mimi" is simple and introspective. Filmed entirely without dialogue, at a cost of Y100 million, it is Ghibli's attempt to push the envelope of animation, much the way Katsuhiro Otomo did with the sf classic "Akira."

In conveying the exhilaration of speed, the exuberance of flight and the techno-grandeur of its futuristic world, it shows us what Ghibli could do if it ever decided to take on the Hollywood entertainment colossus head-to-head. Awesome.

The Daily Yomiuri

April 25, 1995, Tuesday

Animator Loses Sight of Utopia

by Mitsunori Toda; Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The euphoric era of the bubble economy is over and society seems to be headed for an era of apathy and uncertainty. Reflecting these turbulent times, animator Hayao Miyazaki dispenses with fairytale convention for his stories.

His upcoming film, "Mimi o Sumaseba," (If You Strain Your Ears) based on an Aoi Hiiragi cartoon of the same title, to be released in July, will highlight what adults have lost from their lives and what the younger generation need--love.

Miyazaki, who will serve as scriptwriter and producer on the work, says the film is not just another superficial love story.

The story begins with heroine Shizuku, who loves to read, noticing that a boy, Seiji Amazawa, has borrowed almost all the books she took out from a library. After graduating from middle school, Shizuku happens to meet a boy who has a dream of becoming a violin maker in Italy, and discovers that he is Amazawa.

"I tried to focus on how the 15-year-old girl has grown up, and the heroine finally will reach a point where she can understand what she is through experiencing pure love," Miyazaki says.

"Pure love, or romantic love, is something I never experienced in my busy younger days, although I dreamed a lot about it. I believe those who enjoyed a sweet romance in their early days would not dare to do this kind of job (animated film production)." Miyazaki says individuality is a sort of ability that can be created through hard work.

"In my job, it takes time and patience before an animator becomes independent or full-fledged. While completing a certain volume of works, you will eventually notice your potential ability and that is, I would say, individuality," he says.

"So I think it is wrong that the current education system and a society that gives so much importance to academic background kills individuality of young people." Discover your potential ability so that you can do a better job than others, is the message Miyazaki wants to convey to the younger generation.

"Everything Japan has long been proud of, such as the lifetime employment system and flawless labor- management system, have become cracked from the inside," Miyazaki says. "Many fathers of dankai-no-sedai (1st baby boomers aged 45 to 48) have lost their confidence and come to notice that graduating from a prestigious university and working for a big company doesn't always lead to happiness in their lives as they toil for their families."

Miyazaki, 54, first caught the hearts of youngsters with his "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" in 1982. In last year's finale to that saga, which has spanned 13 years, Miyazaki, who admits he once embraced the idealistic view that human beings could eventually find utopia, let his heroine Nausicaa face up to difficulties ahead rather than live in utopia.

The work stresses the importance of symbiosis between human beings and other living creatures. Nausicaa, the beautiful queen of a small country in a nuclear war-devastated world, keeps fighting for her nation in search of a bright future for humans.

A series of historic events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and former communist nations in Eastern Europe, says Miyazaki, have washed away any idealism, changed his view toward society.

But Miyazaki's attitude toward his life is not pessimistic. The energetic animator can rather be described as an enlightened fatalist. "For example, environmental issues have long been a major problem for humans. But nobody has yet found proper answers to solve those issues because human beings commit grave sins against other living creatures and their natural surroundings. In that sense, we are destined to live our lives while being baffled by various difficulties," Miyazaki says.

The Daily Yomiuri

March 5, 1995, Sunday

Miyazaki Draws on His Love of Animation

by unknown

Popular animation director Hayao Miyazaki is drawing on a cartoon story to produce a new animation film about female middle school students. Set for release this summer, Mimi o Sumaseba (If You Strain Your Ears)--based on a Aoi Hiiragi cartoon of the same name--is a love story. "I think cartoons about girls are different, because these stories tend to develop in imaginary worlds. We couldn't make it realistic or it would come across as being superficial," Miyazaki said.

"I've been thinking for a long time about making a film based on a cartoon for girls. I was worried about being able to convey the feelings hidden within the story."

Added the producer-director: "Besides, we had never before depicted a love story. It's a challenge to directly portray genuine love."

Except for one small scene, Miyazaki is not actually directing this animated film. That job goes to Yoshifumi Kondo, who worked under Miyazaki on such animations as Majo no Takkyubin and Omoide Poroporo.

"Kondo is not young as a new director; he's 45 years old, but he has wanted to make a love story like this for a long time. I think he is the right person to direct this project," Miyazaki said.

However, Miyazaki said he himself would direct one scene--the one in which a girl uses her imagination to fly in the air.

" The film's heroine, a student in the third grade of middle school, loves to read. She notices that someone named Seiji Amazawa has taken out almost every book in the library. Then, she meets a boy who is going to Italy to become a violinist, and discovers he is Amazawa.

Miyazaki deviated from the cartoon by making the boy a violinist rather than a painter. "I don't think the only way to live is to go to a good school. It's OK to become a craftsman who makes things. I think today's society, which measures the worth of people by the school they attended, is wrong," he said.

The film is set in a residential suburb of Tokyo, but despite Miyazaki's contention that he "doesn't like convenience stores and the like at night," the town bristles with utility poles.

"The poles are ugly when drawn, but many people see this kind of scene as one that is the most familiar to their own hometowns," he said. "I wanted to depict these kinds of ordinary things in the animation."

The latest technology, such as computer-aided digital composition and Dolby noise reduction, have also been incorporated into the production, which is budgeted at 1.2 billion yen.

"After the bursting of the bubble economy, we entered a more simple world. Love people without being too shy. State clearly the things that one likes about those special people. I would like young people to learn the importance of these kinds of things," Miyazaki said.

Mimi o Sumaseba is set for release in mid-July.