Whisper of the Heart (US reviews)

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The New York Times

September 17, 1995, Sunday

Japan, a Superpower Among Superheroes

by Andrew Pollack


Hayao Miyazaki could teach Walt Disney a thing or two. Every year, Mr. Miyazaki and his collaborators produce an animated movie that is breathtaking for its lush, detailed scenery and its subtle use of colors. Almost every year, the movie is among the top hits in Japan. And every time a Miyazaki film goes head to head with a Disney animated feature at the box office in Japan, the Miyazaki film wins. For all his success in Japan, however, Mr. Miyazaki is barely known to audiences elsewhere. But that probably won't be for long. Japanese animation is starting to sweep through the world, becoming the nation's first big pop culture export.

Animation, which is known in Japan as anime (pronounced AH-nee-may), is diverse. At one extreme is Mr. Miyazaki, who thinks that even Disney movies lack "decency." He produces sugary stories like "My Neighbor Totoro," about two young girls who are befriended by a mythical creature who flies around on a living bus shaped like a cat. About 450,000 copies of the video have been distributed in the United States since July 1994, marking Mr. Miyazaki's first success with American audiences.

At the other extreme might be "Urotsuki Doji: Legend of the Overfiend," an adults-only cartoon that was a popular midnight movie in places like the Angelika Theater in New York. It features grotesque monsters from another world forcing bizarre sex on cute teen-age earthlings.

In between is a whole panoply of space warriors, saucy goddesses, hard-nosed athletes, klutzy teen-agers who are transformed into superheroes and a martial arts master who changes into a woman when splashed with cold water. And robots -- oh, so many gigantic, fighting robots! For all the success of Japan as an exporter of cars and camcorders, its music, movies, television shows and books, with a few exceptions, do not sell well abroad.

But in cartoons, and in the closely related comic books, Japan is a superpower. Consider this: Last year, more than half of the box-office revenues of Japan's movie industry came from animation. More than 10 percent of all the books and magazines published in Japan are comics. And according to one survey, more than 60 percent of the hours of television programming exported from Japan are cartoons.

Japanese cartoons like Dragon Ball Z are hits in Europe, especially in France and Spain. In Vietnam, children line up every Friday to buy the latest installment of the comic book Doraemon, about a robotic cat who draws magical devices from his kangaroolike pouch to help a hapless schoolboy.

Even in the United States, where there is more local competition, Japanese animation, or Japanimation, has developed a cult following that is growing.

While there have been some Japanese cartoons on American television since the early 1960's, like Astro Boy, Speed Racer and Star Blazers, the recent popularity of anime results from video, which has allowed Japan's prolific studios to reach viewers directly.

NUMEROUS American colleges have anime clubs, and there are conventions for American fans. But the place fanatics really meet is on the Internet computer network. For instance, Hitoshi Doi's Anime Page (http:// www.tcp.com/doi/anime2.html) offers synopses of almost every episode of many cartoon series.

On television, too, there is a new interest in Japanese cartoons, generated by the phenomenal success of the Japanese-derived "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." The show, while not actually a cartoon, is very cartoonlike.

Last Monday, a half-hour cartoon show called "Sailor Moon" made its debut on American television (in New York on Channel 11 at 6:30 A.M., Mondays through Fridays). It is about a clumsy crybaby of a junior high school girl who is transformed into a leggy superheroine. The program has been a hit in France. In Japan, it has set off a merchandising mania of dolls, scepters and other paraphernalia far in excess of anything generated here by the Power Rangers.

Japanese comics, known as manga, are also appearing in English in the United States. Studio Proteus, a San Francisco manga importer and translator, reports that the most popular include "Oh My Goddess," about a college student living with three goddesses, and "Domu (A Child's Dream)," about psychic warfare between an evil man and a young girl.

To be sure, Mickey Mouse need not start quaking in his shoes just yet. Disney can sell more than 20 million videotapes of one of its hit movies. With anime, "to sell 20,000 makes it a best seller," said John O'Donnell, managing director of Central Park Media, a New York-based anime distributor.

The spread of Japanese cartoons and comics is not always welcome. Critics say they contain too much sex and violence or are crassly aimed at selling toys. Many featured shapely yet innocent-looking teen-age girls, the object of many Japanese men's fantasies. In Spain, some Japanese cartoons were taken off the air after protests about their violence. Central Park Media voluntarily rates its videos.

In Japan, the police occasionally report crimes that were influenced by comics and cartoons, and some comics cannot be sold to minors. But the overall crime rate here is extremely low, so there has not been that much protest. Still, even Japan has its limits. A manga called "Rape Man," featuring a hero who commits rape for hire, was discontinued after protests from women's groups. One reason Japanese comics and animation get away with sex and violence is that they are not just for children. Some of the same blue-suited businessmen who have made Japan into an economic superpower commute to work on the subways reading comic books, some as thick as telephone books and many sexually explicit.

Comics are a mainstream form of communication here, sold in most bookstores and dealing with more than superheroes. Just how fertile a genre it is can be seen by visiting Comic Station Shibuya, a manga specialty store in Tokyo that contains 120,000 comic books and magazines, almost all wrapped in cellophane to keep them clean and prevent reading without paying.

Among the store's recent best sellers are "Mind Assassin," about a psychiatrist who uses ESP to cure people, and "Gallery Fake," about a dealer in fake antiques. Popular among women are manga featuring love and sex between homosexual men.

The most successful manga artists, like Rumiko Takahashi, can become fabulously wealthy. Some publish their first drawings as teen-agers and, despite their tender age, are referred to as "sensei," meaning "master" or "teacher." The productive comic industry provides the grist for most animations. If comics fulfill part of the role played by novels in the United States, animation is the counterpart of American movies. Young animators here say they are influenced by movies like "Blade Runner" and "Terminator 2" more than by American cartoons.

Japan's anemic movie industry could not keep up with Hollywood's big-budget special-effects films, said Masahiro Haraguchi, a contributing editor of Animage magazine. "So they increasingly turned to animation, where anything is possible," he said.

Admirers say the stories in manga and anime are more complex than in American comics and cartoons. In Japan, superheroes have frailties and major characters can die.

Technology is a big theme, portrayed both positively and negatively. Life after a nuclear holocaust is a common theme, as exemplified by Katsuhiro Otomo's cyberpunk "Akira," probably the best known anime outside Japan.

The scenery in anime sometimes looks as realistic as a photograph, exhibiting the kind of attention to detail found in other Japanese arts like flower arranging. The exception to the realism is in the characters' faces, with their oversize eyes. In American cartoons, facial expressions and mouth movements are fluid. In Japan, partly to save money, there is less focus on faces, resulting in jerkier movements.

"I've seen shots where you look at a glass with ice cubes while the two characters talk," said Lenord Robinson, director of animation for Warner Brothers. "But we in the U.S. are in a hurry to get to the action."

Japan has had a long tradition of drawing pictures. Wood block prints, now considered fine art, were actually used for storytelling several hundred years ago. But the modern form of comics and animation was created in the two decades after World War II by Osamu Tezuka, who is known as the Walt Disney of Japan. Mr. Tezuka pioneered novel-like stories in manga and created Astro Boy, among other characters.

Mr. Tezuka, who died in 1989, is so revered here that a museum was built in his honor. More than 40 Japanese cartoonists signed a letter of protest to Disney last year complaining that "The Lion King" seemed to borrow from Tezuka's "Jungle Emperor," which was shown on American television in 1966 as "Kimba, the White Lion." In both stories the father lion is killed and the son is sent into exile and later returns to recapture the throne. In both stories the lion prince is aided by a wise baboon and a talkative bird while the evil lion has hyenas as henchmen. But Disney defended its work as original. And Tezuka Production, the company that controls the rights to the late author's works, said Mr. Tezuka was an avid Disney fan who would have been flattered if his work had inspired "The Lion King."

THE NEW KINGS OF JAPANESE animation are Mr. Miyazaki and his 100-employee company, Studio Ghibli. "If you had a Top 10 list, they would fill all the slots," said Emiko Okada, an animation critic.

The son of an aviation company executive, Mr. Miyazaki started his career at Toei Animation, but chafed at life in the big company. He left for a smaller company and then, in 1985, founded Ghibli.

His movies are often simple and heartwarming. His latest movie, " Whisper of the Heart, " is a love story about a bookwormish teen-age girl and a boy who wants to be a violin maker. "I don't want to depict the world as someplace not worth living in," Mr. Miyazaki said.

At 54, with graying hair, he criticizes most other Japanese animations as being technically poor or too commercial. He also says that Disney has strayed from its formerly pure stories. "When I look at 'Beauty and the Beast,' it reminds me of a psychiatric patient and his counselor," he said.

By the same token, however, some people say that Mr. Miyazaki's stories lack a certain grittiness found in other animations. "His worlds have become just too nostalgic," said Mamoru Oshii, 44, who is considered a leader of the next generation of animators. His best-known work is "Patlabor," about a robot police force in the future.

Despite what looks like the animation industry's vibrant success, there are signs of trouble. A recent edition of Comic Box, a magazine about the manga business, featured the headline "Manga Is Dead?" Many animations are made on a shoestring budget, and underpaid animators are defecting to the more lucrative video-game industry.

One solution is financing from abroad. Mr. Oshii's newest production, "Ghost in the Shell," is receiving money from Manga Entertainment, a distributor of manga and anime, and will be released simultaneously in English and Japanese late this year.

One can only guess what it is about. The advertising poster shows a naked, gun-toting woman with wires attached to her. "People love machines in 2029 A.D.," the poster says. "Who are you? Who slips into my robot body and whispers to my ghost?"

One thing is clear. Even if the manga and anime industries are slowing down, there is a huge reservoir of material still to be exploited overseas. The invasion of the giant robots, sex-crazed demons and voluptuous yet vulnerable co-eds is just beginning.

Sound on Sight

13 April 2014

[Here be Dragons: 'Whisper of the Heart']

By Racine Charlotte

There’s something even more special about seeing the late Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart on 35mm. In its intended format, the work is on full display, affording its concern with creativity a more visible metatextuality.

The film is distinctly Japanese in two ways, in particular. First is its inclusion of breathing space between narrative beats, or “ma,” as screenwriter and animation legend Hayao Miyazaki once told Roger Ebert. It will take longer than an American viewer would expect from their typical experience of Western media received through osmosis for a character to reach an immediate destination, metaphysical or otherwise. Other seemingly pointless moments like a comment on the weather serve to cultivate a spacious naturalism crucial to maintaining its most important evocation, which is its relatability. Of course, this “ma” is common in all Ghibli films, but as this is one of their only pure slice-of-life pictures, it’s used here in its natural environment. This doesn’t necessarily make it work any better or worse than one of their fantasy films, but it plays into its other Japanese element.

That other element would be its subtle contextualization within a collectivist orientation, which is key to its success. The film has a gentle enough touch to allow itself enough stakes to work and still fit into a larger scale. This scale is executed almost entirely within these pillow shots, with background characters with a distinctive presence and multiple shots of the urban landscape from afar. These shots often pan down from a long shot to the narrative happening on ground level, which has a magnifying glass-like effect to further this idea. This is one of many stories about a person finding out exactly where they fit into society, and it’s maybe as universal as a film can get, though for some it may evoke a painfully tragic peak than a moment of transformation. And yet, even if that’s the case, it works (barring a jaded dismissal), thanks to this balance between the central story and fringe awareness of the bigger world the characters are about to enter.

Ghibli’s propensity to have simple character models and detailed backdrops lends the film a synchronistic and rich visual accompaniment. The especial attention to detail in the representation of the arts and crafts suggests a glimpse into our characters souls not captured by the broad brush strokes that make up the cruder fiber of their physical existence, like the worthless part of a geode. The mere suggestion of a double feature with Inside Llewyn Davis might ruin this film forever for some, but the parallels to be drawn, especially on this front, would be particularly enriching.

An interesting aspect of the film is the disconnect between the quality of Shizuku’s writing in the sequences showing the story she’s writing, which is distinctly amateur, and the beauty said sequences are afforded visually. On the face of it, the inclusion of these sequences idealizes the underdeveloped artist, but in the second half of the film, when her creative process takes place, plenty goes wrong for Shizuku, and it’s all her own fault. It’s a delicate balancing act of seemingly unrelated traits that converges at one of the most understanding and nurturing looks at artistic obsession ever. Typically, this pursuit will be shown to eat the soul, but here it is the very definition of the soul. The only rebuke needed is Shiro’s supremely tactful acknowledgement that “it’s a little rough.” Miyazaki would later adopt the use of fantasy sequences to signify this similar magic of creation in The Wind Rises. The film avoids any condescension, carefully contextualizing naiveté within a nostalgic framework, and the result is simply adorable. Of the exceedingly few one-off masterpieces from one-time directors, Whisper of the Heart might stand as the most complete.

Variety

May 6, 1996 - May 12, 1996

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Foreign films continued to dominate screens, with the box office share of Japanese films plunging from 45.11% in 1994 to 35.78% in 1995.

"Die Hard With a Vengeance" hit hardest in 1995 with a $ 50 million gross, followed by "Speed" and Forrest Gump." Top domestic titles were animated " Whisper of the Heart" with $ 18.5 million and "Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla."

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