By Bob Clark
Japanese manga amounts to a sub-genre of comics in the west, albeit one of increasing popularity and devotion among younger and younger readers, enough to the point that it’s more and more common to see western artists and writers imitate the form as little more than a commercial trick to lure new readers in. But within manga itself there are at least a dozen or so genres for the form to be subdivided into, ranging into all kinds of different creative directions based on the content, style and intended audience. Most visible and popular in the United States tend to be the shonen series, aimed chiefly for young boys and filled with action-packed stories ranging from the martial-arts fantasy of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, the magical adventure of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist and any number of works from groundbreaking creator Osamu Tezuka. Skewing towards an older, college-male audience are seinen series, typically filled with far more mature content in terms of sex and violence, and at the best of times created with a more mature artistic sensibility as well– it’s here that we get the root of classics like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and the whole creative output of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed creator Masamune Shirow.
At the same time, there are josei works aimed at college-age and adult women, mostly focusing on day-to-day realism and emotional stories ranging from romance to simply finding a place in a busy world, a fine example being Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone’s Only Yesterday, later made into a film by Isao Takahata. As the co-founder of the storied Studio Ghibli, Takahata’s creative output has helped make him one of the defining voices of anime, and even a defining voice within the studio itself, even as it is defined by the influence of his colleague, Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata’s stories tend to center more on realism and emotional drama, as opposed to the adventure and fantasy prevalent in Miyazaki’s work, and as such his decision to adapt a josei makes a kind of sense. More surprising, however, may be his colleague’s decision to adapt a piece of pure shojo— one of the most popular manga forms, aimed traditionally at young girls, mostly concerned with school-crushes and romance– the resulting work being the modest classic Whisper of the Heart.
To look at it on the page, Aoi Hiragi’s If You Listen Closely doesn’t seem to have much at all in common with Miyazaki’s outputs or concerns, narratively. To begin with, there’s the simple soap-comedy story, concerning a young middle-school girl discovering the world around her after growing curious about the name of a boy she keeps finding on take-out cards from library books she reads over the summer. It’s miles apart from the typically high-flying, imaginative narratives that Miyazaki traditionally weaves in his original projects, and even far different from the shallower pleasures of the shonen television anime that he cut his teeth on. It’s not hard to see a continuity between the action-packed stylings of his work on Monkey Punch’s Lupin the Third series or the Castle of Cagliostro film and the gun-toting war-ships and air-pirates of movies like Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso, but it’s harder to see the commonalities between himself and Hiragi’s work. At its most superficial, If You Listen Closely would appear to be exactly the type of shallow love-story manga that Miyazaki despaired to see his own grandchildren read, thus motivating him to come up with a fresh, more proactive role model in the acclaimed Spirited Away.
The Hiragi manga little resembles Miyazaki’s output on visual terms as an animator and mangaka, as well– all one has to do is look at his Journey of Shuna or Nausicaa comics to see how differently he treats the page, relying mostly on the same kind of dynamic, fragmented panel compositions and strict physical realism in illustrations prevalent in shojo and seinen typically. This contrasts sharply with the more free flowing, impressionistic art style, which is largely drawn from a vivid depiction of a character’s interior life and emotions, rather than being too tied down to the physical world around them. It’s a big difference from Miyazaki’s work in comics and film, which even at their most fantastical moments remain concretely rooted in physical detail– indeed, these moments are perhaps when he zeroes in on realism in his artwork even more furiously, all the better to convince the reader of viewer of what they’re seeing. Yet somehow, from this mix of different narrative and artistic stylings, and perhaps even moreso a mixture of old and new voices at Studio Ghibli, we get one of their most affecting successes.
Serving solely as screenwriter and storyboarder, Miyazaki handed off the reigns of directing on this project to veteran animator Yoshifumi Kondo, with whom he had worked on numerous projects at Ghibli and several others stretching all the way back to their time at Nippon Animation in the 70’s. Sadly, Kondo would pass away from a sudden aneurism while working as an animation director on Princess Mononoke, making Whisper of the Heart his sole output as a feature-director (he had previously directed the pilot film for the Little Nemo project back when Ghibli was invovled, and much of his imagery survives in the finished film), a fact that’s all the more important to digest in light of it being the first Ghibli film directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata at all. Bearing the former co-founder’s creative fingerprints on both the screenplay and the storyboards, the film naturally has a feel that’s incredibly familiar to the master’s style in terms of illustrations and compositions throughout, as well as the studied observational details that are used to embellish and deepen the settings of the story and thereby pull out more of its dramatic weight.
This is one of the first ways that the film departs significantly from its manga– as opposed to existing in the same kind of largely impressionistic, immaterial world of the comic-page, Miyazaki and Kondo emphasize the physicality of the world that their young characters live in, and paint each succeeding location in the film finely enough for the differences to become significant– the cramped Tokyo apartment complex where Shizuku and her family eke by, the maze of urban alleys and homey backyards that she curiously follows the plump cat Muta through to the posh, comfortable yuppie neighborhood where many of the rest of the characters reside. Without injecting it directly into the content of the script, Miyazaki and Kondo’s visual work at fleshing out the places their characters live in help bring out a social dimension that wasn’t there in the manga, helping to turn the anime not only into a story of young love but one of different classes, as well. It’s just one way that the film deepens the original work, taking the story of the manga and building on it to create something more than a mere meet-cute between its teenage go-getters.
Perhaps the most important way that Miyazaki develops the existing story is how he follows through past its conclusion on the page, focusing on the young pair as they begin to dedicate themselves to related, but opposing creative passions– her finding the will to push herself and become a writer from his support, and him throwing himself to the risky gambit of learning to become a violin-maker in Italy, all at the height of studying for their high-school entrance exams. Miyazaki’s script takes any number of cues from the original manga, tweaking and fleshing them out into a shape that better supports the sustained feature-length experience and takes full advantage of the arsenal of cinematic tools. In the book, for instance, the young boy fleetingly shows a passion for painting, something that works fine on the purely visual medium of the comics-page, but would come off as simply static in film. Instead, Miyazaki gives him an idiosyncratic devotion to making and playing musical instruments, which allows their creative gifts to intersect midway as the two of them play and sing a song she’s written translated lyrics for.
In his hands, the characters’ interests play a subtle dance of bringing them together and pulling them apart as he makes plans to spend years away learning his craft, but thanks to the way he and Kondo render the characters the effect is one that deepens the strength of their connection, rather than weakening it. It helps that Kondo employs a full range of the tools of animation in ways that set him apart from the full-blown fantasy of Miyazaki and the hectic cartoonist imagination of Takahata. Most especially, Kondo uses the plates of his foreground and background elements with far more emphasis than the dense cel-work that the Ghibli founders tend towards, resulting in an image that often has some of the softness and warmth of live-action shooting, and especially emphasizes the settings throughout the film in ways that emphasize the emotional characteristics without ever betraying the realism of their locations. You feel the claustrophobic, stiffling nature of the cramped Tokyo apartment in ways that help make the freedom of the other location’s wider shots feel more palpable. At the same time, the soft, blurry images he captures in the cat’s citywide commute and the curiosity shop, full to the brim with multi-plane detail, helps add a romantic aspect to their locales.
Even the use of plates for most of the fantasy sequences (portraying scenes from the book Shizuku strives to write) help the movie stand out from the heavy cell-work that Miyazaki employs in his fairy-tale worlds, resulting in one that feels more concretely tied to the real world. It’s a connection that’s vivid in the film itself in moments like the brisk pan down across a wild, out-of-this-world landscape of floating planetoids that cedes almost imperceptibly back into the real world as Shizuku runs excitedly to the library for research, perfectly capturing the heart-pounding exuberance of youth and passion (romantic and creative, both) in a savvy cinematic gesture that expresses much the same breadth of feeling that Hiraki’s shojo stylings do on the page. At its best moments, Whisper of the Heart captures something uniquely down-to-earth and comforting that’s uncommon in animation, even for the acclaimed likes of Studio Ghibli. The combination of a simple, well-worn story of Hiragi’s manga as the basis for Miyazaki’s studied script and Kondo’s novel direction. The fact that we can never see a combination quite like this or any further growth from the voice of that director ever again makes the presence of this film all the more precious to behold.