By Bob Clark
Studio Ghibli is known, above all, for the far-flung fantasy films they’ve released over the past 25 years under the direction of esteemed animator Hayao Miyazaki, but even from their very beginning it was only one aspect to their output. The dominant aspect, yes, but along with Miyazaki you had the work of the studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata, whose acclaimed features have mostly dealt with real-world concerns. Most obvious are the bleak portrayal of WWII squalor in Grave of the Fireflies or the dispiritingly nostalgic look at a lonely single woman’s life in Only Yesterday, but even the boistrous comic fantasy of Pom Poko is more grounded in the real world than his colleague’s work, portraying rowdy tanuki in their prankster’s war against the onslaught of human civilization destroying their forest homes in contemporary Japan. There, and in the domestic family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between the fantastic and the mundane, employing a range of caricature and over-the-top gag cartooning that wouldn’t be out of place in a madcap Looney Tune fiasco. Other animators under the Ghibli aegis have either focused on the real world (the little-seen Ocean Waves– little seen for good reason, I’ll add), but apart from the work of its founders, the studio’s greatest success again lay in the combination of the real and the fantastical, albeit in far more grounded terms, in the late Yoshifumo Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, adapted by Miyazaki himself from the shojo manga by Aoi Hiragi.
That film has quietly become one of the most heralded classics from the Studio Ghibli canon since its release in 1995, a picture of youths in the midst of discovering their potential inside themselves at the same time that they discover it in one another, providing a canny portrait not only of young love but the journey of self-love. The demands and challenges of the real world are never quite as convincing and real as they are here, as they stand in the way of not only a young girl’s burgeoning crush with a boy about to move away to find himself, but also her own slowly gestating personal ambitions to become a writer. In that film, the brief glimpses we see of the fantasy novel she pens as a means to prove herself and test her talent are less moments of freedom from the narrative of the mundane, as they are peeks into the pressure-cooker that world makes of her inner world. The stakes for the successful completion and quality of her writing are so well defined that we can’t merely be washed away by the beauty of the imagery Kondo puts to the screen (though it’s certainly beautiful enough to do so on its own), because we’re so keenly aware of what it represents for her personal goals. As such, the moments of Miyazaki fantasy throughout the film serve self-conscious expressions of the real-world concerns permeating throughout the film, and the self-consciousness helps serve both the way that the film treats the authoring of fantasy writing and the ways in which a young person’s personality comes to blossom in discovering itself. For a somewhat more conventional expression of pure fantasy/real-world combinations, we can look to that film’s spin-off sequel, The Cat Returns.
In this case, the origins of the film are as curious a story about writing as that of the initial film, itself. Though based on a manga by Aoi Hiragi, Whisper of the Heart largely builds its own narrative using the shojo archetypes and conventions present in the original work. Miyazaki’s screenplay and storyboards add depth and detail to the simple story of a girl whose curiosity about the boy whose name she finds on all the library cards for books she reads over summer, turning it into something more than a mere look at childhood crushes and into a graceful portrait of adolescence in all its facets. Even most of the fantasy elements are inventions of the film– only the inciting “character” of the Baron cat-statue is present in both, the original manga ending just at the moment when the young girl is first encouraged to begin a tentative pursuit of her dream to write. We never see the fantastic adventures she dreams up for the Baron herself in that manga, though they become a subplot all their own in the Miyazaki/Kondo film, and one that deepens connections already present from the original book. As such, when Aoi Hiragi’s Baron: The Cat Returns was released, with its emphasis on the high-flying adventures of a porcelain cat come to life, it was less a sequel to her own original manga or even to the filmed version of it, and more a sequel to the story written by the girl in that film– the second chapter to a story within a story.
And what is that story? A fun enough trifle of a fairy-tale involving an ordinary teenage girl who saves a cat from being run over by a truck, only to discover that he is the prince of a kingdom of talking felines and that she is soon to be “honored” with the prospect of becoming his wife, like it or not. Soon enough she finds herself being whisked away to the magical kingdom, where she’ll turn into a cat herself if the Baron and his motley assortment of friends don’t come to her rescue in time, resulting in an escalating series of comic adventures and misadventures that seem to poke gentle fun at the conventions of the animated fairy-tale as much as they live up to them (not that different from the Shrek or Puss in Boots films from DreamWorks, but without all the distracting pop-culture references). The fact that Ghibli had commissioned Hiragi to invent this new manga (originally at the behest of a theme park that wanted a short production, before turning it into a feature of their own) further complicates the authorship and origins, as most of the returning characters resemble more their Whisper of the Heart incarnations than their manga counterparts. The most obvious example is the train-commuting cat Muta– a slim black-cat in Hiragi’s original, but a plump butterball in the Miyazaki/Kondo film, a trait that continues here. Hiragi embellishes the Ghibli characterization by giving Muta the same disgruntled, cynical voice that Jim Davis’ Garfield has, which at once feels a natural fit to the version from the earlier film while at the same time diminishing just a little bit of the realism that movie relished upon. The Muta of Whisper of the Heart is convincing as an actual cat, whereas in The Cat Returns, he resembles more a cartoon character.
At the same time, Hiragi stretches her imagination throughout her story in ways that alternately strain to reach the same heights and expectations of Studio Ghibli storytelling, and at other times match it almost perfectly. On the page you can sense a new rush of energy and creative power as Hiragi channels her illustration prowess into detailing a vivid series of fantasy adventures and worlds far removed from the shojo conventions of the earlier work and her body as a whole. Her style here is far more grounded in shonen-style action sequences, depicting far-flung chases through crowded city-streets, high-flying aerial acrobatics in the skies above Tokyo, or eye-popping magical set-pieces throughout the Kingdom of Cats. At times the sequences Hiragi puts to the page can become overwhelming in the scale and scope of the action they portray, and the express focus on cause-and-effect chases and fights sometimes draws the story a little too far away from the somber, impressionistic style of the original manga (and the shojo genre in general), and one can sense this in the way that the eventual Ghibli film tones down much of the fantastical sequence of events, simplifying it into something more manageable. Most of the same elements are present throughout, but are streamlined visually and in terms of their ruleset– our heroes are still chased through a giant labyrinth, but it’s no longer one with gravity-defying physics that seem to presage the Rubik’s cube contraptions of Inception. As storyboarded and directed by first-timer Hiroyuki Morita (who would later go on to helm Bokurano, another Evangelion-style existential, reality bending giant-mech anime), there’s more of an emphasis on visual humor throughout than in most of the Ghibli canon.
One can see the influence of Takahata, for whom Morita worked as an animator on My Neighbors the Yamadas, in the way that the film uses those cartoon-gags to streamline the story. At the same time, though, a healthy portion of the punchline images that Morita uses in the film merely build on stuff that’s already present in Hiragi’s Baron manga, revealing the true depth of her multifaceted talent in the ways that things are kept the same, rather than changed. Morita embellishes jokes and humor beats throughout, like black-cats that follow a king in Secret Service mode or green-beret cats with camouflage fur-patterns, in ways that capitalize on the illustrations from the original manga and better milk the laughs for animation. For the most part, however, he remains astonishingly faithful to the majority of Hiragi’s work, duplicating most of the major sequences with only minor abridgement to fit into the shorter-than-average feature running time. What results is a movie that stands out from the Ghibli fold, even as it remains tied to the same conventions of fantasy storytelling and even visual theatrics that served it in the past– some of the latter palace chase bits almost seem patterned after the Miyazaki-animated Puss in Boots, which the director would later recycle in bits and pieces for Castle of Cagliostro and Castle in the Sky. From the pairing of an author who inspired one of the studio’s classics now aiming to duplicate the same kind of adventurous mannerisms that fill the rest of their works and an animator seeking to establish his own unique voice in the face of a well-honed house-style, we get something refreshingly modern and unique. It’s by no means the best thing that Studio Ghibli has ever done, but it is in many ways the most uncharacteristic thing that’s ever come from their productions stylistically, ironically from something that began as an attempt at mere franchising. As such, one can actually see here something that was attempted both in the making and spirit of Whisper of the Heart– a new generation’s creative awakening.