Disney. Pixar. Ghibli. When you speak of the history of feature film animation, you largely speak of those three names.
With the recent news that the great Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki seems to finally be serious about entering retirement comes the recollection of how those sunset rumors first came about. Unfortunately, the circumstances at the time were painfully tragic.
The first feature film at the legendary Studio Ghibli to not be directed by either Miyazaki or co-founder Isao Takahata was the hand drawn 1995 release Whisper of the Heart. Animator/animation director Yoshifumi Kondo was not only entrusted with Miyazaki's screenplay but was being looked upon by the Master himself to eventually take over as the prime filmmaker at the company.
(As per my usual viewing habits, the version regarded was in the original native language with English subtitles, although a dubbed version is available for audiences that prefer such.)
The soundtrack to the opening credits provides a bit of a surprise - an Olivia Newton-John rendition of the old John Denver hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads". As we learn, the lead character of Shizuku, in her final year of junior high, has taken to writing translations and new lyrics for the American tune. An avid reader, she notices that the same fellow seems to be taking out the library books she has been reading. It turns out the mystery lad is none other than Seiji, a boy she finds to be alternately fascinating and aggravating. In time she comes to understand that the nice old gift shop owner she has met is the boy's grandfather, who happens to provide the workshop where Seiji concentrates on his true passion - making violins. As Shizuku learns of his plans to head to Italy to learn and practice his craft at the highest of ends, she becomes determined to work at her calling - a story inspired by the cat statue named Baron that resides in the grandpa's store.
Head to your favorite search engine and type in "Whisper of the Heart underrated"... and you'll see why some of us so passionately want this movie to find a wider audience. It captures, in a beautifully simple way, a unique coming of age tale where the boy-meets-girl connection comes not from physical attractions but inner ones. Shizuku and Seiji slowly come to recognize each other as kindred spirits and realize that geographical distance does nothing to hinder the connection they have with each other. In a non-traditional way, this couple experiences the truest of romances. It's hard to express how lovely it is to watch this tale unfold, sans clichés.
It may not have the sweep of most of Miyazaki's own films and the pacing may be regard as unnecessarily deliberate in a few places but there was no shame in not having the Master's name in the director credits for this one. Kondo's Whisper of the Heart stands as a great achievement in the Ghibli annuals.
Tragically, Kondo never had the opportunity of leading the studio forward, let alone direct another feature. He died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the youngish age of 47. It's said that Miyazaki reacted by pulling back on his own workload and contemplating a retirement he now appears determined to go ahead with. While the Master will always be revered for the magnificent contributions he has made, his deceased protege should never be forgotten for this one outstanding contribution of his own.
I say this film tastes - REFRESHING.