Whisper of the Heart is one of the best Studio Ghibli films there is, which is saying something when you consider the studio’s prestige and reputation for transcending the genre of anime. And, as it happens, you can see it in a theater tonight as part of GKIDS' Studio Ghibli Fest 2019: an ongoing promotion bringing Studio Ghibli films to theaters, for limited runs, through December. In the Seattle, Whisper of the Heart will play in Japanese with English subtitles at AMC Pacific Place, as well as Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue and a few other places north and south of the city.
Whisper of the Heart is unusual for an anime—even for Studio Ghibli—because it doesn’t involve magical locations, witches, or spirits. Its most fantasy-like elements are the jaw-dropping clouds that float magnanimously overhead as junior high student Shizuku Tsukishima runs down the stairs of her impeccable walk score neighborhood. She’s supposed to be studying for exams, but she’d rather be reading books and following neighborhood cats. The film also unforgettably repurposes John Denver's “Country Roads,” and applies it to everyday Japanese life via a number of covers. If that sounds too good to be true, it's not. It totally works somehow.
There’s a tragedy to Whisper of the Heart’s uniqueness, and it lays in the film’s one-hit status as the directorial debut of Yoshifumi Kondō. It’s pretty common knowledge that Kondō was being groomed by Hayao Miyazaki (one of Studio Ghibli’s best known patriarchs) to head the next generation of Ghibli films. Unfortunately Kondō died of a heart aneurysm in ’98—attributed to overwork—which led to the first of Miyakazki’s many “retirements.”
Knowing all that, watching Whisper of the Heart could feel bittersweet. It’s not hard to imagine a whole slew of magic realism anime films coming after, with this film as a model. Still, it's a terrific piece of work. Shizuku’s attempts at balancing her responsibilities to family, school, and her own demanding imagination are fleshed out in deeply resonant ways. There’s a little romance tacked on at the end, which has always been criticized, but the film also speaks to the camaraderie that exists between creative people—who support and encourage one other even as the rest of the world demands they study for exams. Whisper of the Heart is a totally unique work that brings the energy and optimism of anime to the same table as slice of life realism. Here's your chance to see those clouds on the big screen.