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January 2012

Whisper Of The Heart

cast: Youko Honna, Issei Takahashi, Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, and Cary Elwes

directors Yoshifumi Hondo and Hayao Miyazaki

111 minutes (U) 1995
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum blu-ray region B
[released 9 January]

RATING: 8/10
review by Sarah Ash

Whisper Of The Heart DVD
Whisper Of The Heart

"Take me home, country roads, to the place I want to be..."

Shizuku Tsukishima (Youko Honna/ Brittany Snow) and her best friend Yuuko (Maiko Yoshiyama/ Ashley Tisdale) are working on an alternate version of the classic John Denver song that they can sing for their upcoming graduation ceremony to mark the end of junior high school. Shizuku is a bookworm who spends all her vacation reading and haunting libraries - yet she's mystified and intrigued by the fact that almost all the books she's been borrowing recently have been borrowed before by someone called Seiji Amasawa. They must have very similar tastes… In a daydream, she goes off, leaving the latest book behind; when she returns, she finds an unfamiliar boy (Issei Takahashi/ David Gallagher) has picked it up and is reading it - and also, oh horrors, her rewritten song words. A throwaway comment from the stranger about her lyrics leaves her fuming; how dare he read them without her permission?

Shizuku is mystified yet again when she meets a cat on the train. Setting off in pursuit of the elusive creature, she finds herself in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo; in front of her is an antique shop - and in the window is an unusual figurine of a cat elegantly dressed in morning suit and carrying a top hat. Shizuku is meant to be delivering lunch to her father at the library… but curiosity draws her into the shop which is full of delights. The elderly owner, Shirou Nishi (Keiju Kobayashi/ Harold Gould) shows her a remarkable grandfather clock that he's been restoring. He also tells her that the cat statuette is known as 'The Baron' (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi/ Cary Elwes)... and that he's one half of a rare pair; the missing half is his 'bride.' Shizuku suddenly remembers her errand and dashes off in a panic to the library, forgetting her father's lunch. Who should come to the rescue but the boy she met before - could he be Nishi-san's grandson? She wants to thank him - but then he leaves with a cheeky retort about the size of 'her' lunch and she's left fuming again.

Later on, revelations ensue; his grandfather's name might be Nishi, but he is Seiji Amasawa - the one whose name appears on the borrowing cards (ah, the days before computerised library systems) of her favourite library books.

Returning to the shop, she meets the boy again and learns that his dream in life is to become a violin maker. His parents have agreed to send him to Cremona to study - and he'll be leaving before the end of junior high. Just as Shizuku realizes that she has feelings for him, he's going to be setting out for Italy - and may never return. This sets her thinking that she should set herself a goal in life - but what is she good at? Writing, Seiji tells her. So she determines to write a novel - and as she develops her own version of the Baron's life story, her writing begins to obsess her. Her school marks begin to suffer - but she is determined to finish, no matter what happens. Seiji has been given two months in which to prove himself to the violin maker in Cremona; if he passes this exacting test, he'll stay on and devote himself to learning his craft for ten years. Shizuku begins to fear that she will never see him again. Are they destined to be together? Or will Seiji never return to Japan?

Whisper Of The Heart is an endearing slice-of-life story that portrays with affection the stirrings of first love - and the desire to be a writer - in its sympathetic heroine Shizuku, as well as her struggles to cope with the pressures of growing up. Based on the manga of the same name by Aoi Hiiragi, its affectionate portrayal of the vivid excitements and disappointments of adolescence carries us along at its own gentle pace. This is a story of everyday life, where Shizuku is nagged for forgetting to do her share of the household chores by her big sister, and fumbled, awkward declarations of first love between boys and girls who have grown up together since primary school cause heartbreak and confusion. But there are no delinquents here, or worries about drugs, drink, smoking, or sex; Shizuku and her friends are more concerned about failing their exams.

The tale seems to date from a quieter, more relaxed era (the film was first released in 1995). A later Ghibli anime, The Cat Returns, is based on another manga by Hiiragi-sensei which, by implication, might be the fantasy story about the Baron that we see Shizuku writing in her own story, entitled 'Whisper of the Heart'. The charming cover illustration of Shizuku and the Baron in full flight is, however, a little misleading; Hayao Miyazaki directed the fantasy sequence which depicts Shizuku's amazing dream (which becomes the basis for her novel). The amazingly detailed background art used here is by artist Inoue Naohisa.

Studio Ghibli is probably best known for its imaginative anime fantasy films (most notably Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke), but this fantasy sequence, although gorgeous to look at, especially in blu-ray, is very brief; the emphasis throughout the film is on human relationships and, especially, on Shizuku's voyage of self-discovery, set against a very ordinary, everyday suburban setting. Of course, this being a Studio Ghibli anime, the views of Tokyo seen from the heights where Shizuku and Seiji live, are breathtaking. But then, so are the journeys that we accompany Shizuku on, whether it be chasing after the cat from the train - or on her way to the library; all the street scenes and snapshots of urban life in Japan are realistically yet attractively portrayed - and brought to vivid life in this new blu-ray edition.

While the original Japanese actors bring a natural charm to the roles of the junior high-schoolers, the US dub (dating from 2006) uses young up-and-coming stars Brittany Snow and David Gallagher who are surprisingly convincing and sympathetic as the central pair. Cary Elwes and Harold Gould are also exceptionally good as the Baron and Nishi-san. The score, by Yuuji Nomi, is serviceable but not exceptional - although a magical moment occurs when Shizuku and Seiji are singing and playing 'Country Roads.' Grandpa Nishi returns with two old friends and soon all five are improvising together using a remarkable assortment of old European instruments. 'Country Roads' is - of course - the iconic opening theme, sung by Olivia Newton-John (a hit in Japan in 1995) and the ending theme is a Japanese version of the same song, performed by Youko Honna who plays Shizuku.

Whisper Of The Heart is that rare animal these days, a feel-good film which manages to leave a warm glow without being sentimental. It's sad to note that director Yoshifumi Kondo died at the age of 47 in 1998, depriving Studio Ghibli - and us - of one of its most promising directors.

Disc extras comprise: storyboards; background artwork from 'The Baron's Story'; and featurettes: Four Masterpieces Of Naohisa Inoue; From Start To Finish; Behind The Microphone; plus TV spots, original Japanese theatrical trailers, and Studio Ghibli collection trailers.

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