Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio justly compared to Pixar in terms of sophistication, has something else in common with their CGI cousins across the Pacific. Both studios were built by singular, legendary talents who are now – for differing reasons – moving to one side, and with no obvious sign of who will step into their gigantic shoes.
For Pixar it must be a concern that outfit’s guru John Lasseter has a more diverse range of corporate interests, now head of Disney’s entire animation division, while Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are busying themselves with major live action studio movies (possibly never to return). They still have Pete Docter – the director of Up, whose next film is slated for 2014 – but otherwise they have been using the last few features to bed in other talents in order to carry the studio forward. And these appointments have not been unproblematic.
First, long-serving sound editor Gary Rydstrom was given the job of directing Newt – a project that was unceremoniously cancelled after the studio lost confidence in Rydstrom’s ability to develop that story being a promising concept. Next Brenda Chapman was axed as director of the upcoming Brave, to be replaced by the relatively inexperienced Mark Andrews, with sources citing “creative differences”.
Ghibli have suffered from a similar talent drain, with co-founders Hayao Miyazaki (71) and Isao Takahata (76) nearing retirement – in fact Miyazaki has retired once already, in 1998, only to be tempted back when it became clear there is literally no one else around. Between them Miyazaki and Takahata have directed twelve of the studio’s eighteen features to date (a number that goes up to 13 of 19 if you include pre-Ghibli effort Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), whilst Miyazaki has scripted several of those films trusted to younger talent, including last year’s slight but appealing Arrietty and the 1995 masterpiece Whisper of the Heart - both of which are released on Blu-ray today.
Whisper of the Heart is – at least in my mind – the only non-Miyazaki/Takahata Ghibli movie that belongs comfortably in the same company as classics like My Neighbour Tororo and Only Yesterday. But there remains an air of great tragedy around the film, still felt by the studio, as its highly promising director Yoshifumi Kondō passed soon after its release, at the age of 47.
Though written and storyboarded by Miyazaki, there is a banality, a thoughtfulness and hint of melancholy to this introverted coming of age tale that feels closer to the work of Takahata, especially the aforementioned (and oft-overlooked) Only Yesterday. Bar one eye-catching and suitably bizarre fantasy sequence, this is a slow moving, near two-hour story about a shy Tokyo schoolgirl, named Shizuku, doubting her talent (for writing) and underestimating her own worth. She is supposed to be revising for high school entrance exams but instead suffers from a kind of premature mid-life, existentialist crisis – measuring her own achievements alongside those of a talented friend named Seiji, who is departing for Cremona, Italy, to pursue violin making.
The animation is exquisitely detailed, to Miyazaki standards, with emphasis on the smallest of movements: for instance what plot there is turns on Shizuku’s discovery of Seiji’s name on a series of library index cards. Yes, every other scene seems to take place in a library, so Princess Mononoke this is not. But it is a mature and emotional piece of filmmaking, which is as much about the value of art and the pursuit of dreams and fear of the future as it is growing up and falling in love. I’m not sure how interesting it would be to young children, especially if compared to the more exciting likes of Spirited Away or Ponyo, but if you’re of the right age and temperament it’s every bit as magical.
Kondō was heir apparent in the eyes of his great mentors and, though we can only speculate about what could have been, on this evidence I suspect we wouldn’t have had to suffer through Tales From Earthsea or this film’s bland pseudo prequel The Cat Returns. The task of replacing Miyazaki and Takahata is near impossible, but it became that much harder with Kondō’s unfortunate passing.
A slim extras package compared to previous Ghibli blu-ray releases, without a making of documentary – discounting an 8 minute look behind the scenes of the American voice cast recording sessions, which is pretty vapid. As with previous releases the most eye-catching feature is the ability to watch the film along with the storyboards.
There is a 5 minute montage of the concept artwork behind the film’s fantasy sequences (which is possibly longer than the sequence itself) and, in a similar vein, we get a 35 minute look at how surrealist artist Naohisa Inoue painted the background for the sequences. This is shown as a timelapse look at the progress of four different paintings. Viewed at 10x speed on fast forward this is worth watching. Otherwise it’s almost literally like watching paint dry.
Otherwise you get around 15 minutes of TV spots and trailers, some of which are interesting but not exactly exciting as bonus materials go. Overall this is a passable offering but a disappointing one considering the calibre of the film and the tragedy of its director’s foreshortened career.
Whisper of the Heart is released today in a Blu-ray/DVD combo set which can be purchased here.