Whisper Of The Heart [Mimi o Sumaseba] (1995)

I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.

Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true). 

As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.

Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.

My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.

Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.

The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice [Ochazuke no aji] (1952)

He Supports You, He Provides For You And Darling You Can’t Support Yourself

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The practice of arranged marriage was bizarre to the west come the 20th century however according to the website FactsAndDetails.com; “[Japan] In the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 10 percent are”. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (or “Flavor” as you yanks spell it) is one of several domestic sagas by director Yasujirō Ozu which focuses on arranged marriages, and it’s fascinating to see how such an arcane practice was still commonplace in a world which is otherwise very westernised. However, like Late Spring and Early Summer, the focus on arranged marriage doesn’t detract from the universality of these films nor do I get any impression Ozu is attacking the practice in any of his pictures. In The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice, the young girl Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) outright refuses to partake in an arranged marriage however come the film’s conclusion, the story’s main couple Taeko & Mokichi Satake (Michiyo Kogure and Shin Saburi) do find happiness within their arranged marriage. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice holds similar plot threads to Ozu’s earlier comedy What Did The Lady Forget? – both of which feature a childless, married couple and a rebellious niece named Setsuko.

Taeko Satake very much fits the mould of a wine aunt – a woman of privilege who is unemployed, childless and is able to live a rather luxurious life (symbolized from her preferred attire of kimono) from living off her husband as well as receiving money from her upper-middle-class parents. The film doesn’t indicate if the relationship between Taeko and her husband Mokichi was ever strong. She is only seen acting like a loving wife in the lead up to lying to her husband in order to go to the hot springs with her friends for the night, nor does he make any effort to confront these obvious lies. Upon first watching the film I wasn’t quite sure if Mokichi just accepted these lies and did nothing about it or was just thick. Taeko even calls her husband Mr. Bonehead when he’s not around and compares him to a big, sluggish carp on one occasion. Likewise, there is the hypocrisy of her refusing to speak to her husband for days on end after he lied to her even though she has previously lied to him on many occasions – ah women, amirite? I know I’m going quite hard on this character, but I by no means dislike her. Prior to the film’s conclusion, her character does receive some redemption in being a doting and caring aunt to Setsuko (of whom it’s somewhat odd that the young girl spends the entire movie hanging out with older women), plus I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the ever-gorgeous Michiyo Kogure. Despite collaborating with many actors on multiple occasions, The Falvour Of Green Tea Over Rice would be Michiyo Kogure’s only film with Ozu.

The other point of contention amidst Mr. & Mrs. Satake is the class difference between the two, with Mokchi coming from a more working-class background. This conflict becomes most pronounced when Taeko chastises her husband over his primitive manner of eating, “wolfing his food down like a dog” as she describes it. This class difference ties into the meaning behind the film’s title. Mokchi is a man who derives simple pleasures from life much to his wife’s displeasure. In a monologue, he speaks of how he likes things “cosy and down-to-earth” and “without ceremony or affectation” (which in itself is a perfect description of Ozu as a filmmaker). The pharse “flavour of green tea over rice” is a capitulation to the simple life with green tea over rice itself being a simple delicacy. What would be the western equivalent – the flavour of bread over butter? The other husband featured in The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice is that of Toichiro (Hisao Toake), the husband of Aya (Chikage Awashima). The awkward and cucked little man is spotted having an affair with another woman at a baseball game (despite the claim that he doesn’t like baseball very much) and even comes to his wife’s place of work in order to ask her for money (it’s not indicated if he actually works himself). Aya herself has a job of some prestige, appearing to be a clothes designer and it’s clear who wears the pants in this couple. Men, be more like Mokichi and don’t in any way emulate the pathetic Toichiro. Mokchi may not be the most exciting man in the world but he is a reliable husband ala green tea over rice. As Taeko states at the film’s conclusion – “What’s most important is whether he’s reliable or not”.

Taeko and Mokichi’s marriage is ultimately saved by what else, the making a late-night snack. After Taeko had to leave the country for Uruguay and was unable to say goodbye to his wife as she had unexpectedly left for a few days, the two then find themselves reunited at home when Taeko’s plane has to return due to mechanical troubles. In one of the most beautiful scenes in an Ozu film, the pair must find their way around the kitchen as their servant Fumi (Yôko Kosono) has gone to bed and they have never prepared food for themselves. The couple display a look of pure joy on their faces while they prepare a snack of (you guessed it) green tea over rice as the two fall-in-love with each other and Mokichi’s comes to understand Taeko’s philosophy of “cosy and down-to-earth”. The scene is not in any way unbelievable or contrived and demonstrates there still lies hope for damaged marriages and relationships. Their kitchen itself is pure interior decorating goals with its slight Bauhaus vibe and one which is illuminated with a beautiful, dark and hazy light. The final shot of the kitchen lingers as the couple leaves the room and turns off the lights, letting the viewer absorb the pure cinematic magic which just unfolded. Previously, I would have ranked the best ever scene in a movie centered around a kitchen to have been the comical climax in Woman Of The Year (1942), which can now hold the number 2 position of such an honour. 

Another interesting point of note is Aya’s question to Setsuko as to whether she prefers the upper or lower part of actor Jean Marais’ face after Setsuko speaks of going to see one of his pictures. The same reference was made in Late Spring to a Japanese man having the same facial features as Gary Cooper on the lower part of his face, with the significance being the upper part of the face being what most significantly distinguishes asians from caucasians. Conversely, in a slightly odd change of pace for an Ozu film, the camera moves with a total of 7 pans throughout the film – rare for Ozu considering his aversion to camera movement. This however does not include camera shots stationed on moving vehicles unless that in itself can be classified as a moving shot? Correspondingly, like other Ozu films, the film provides some documentary-like moments of post-war Japan such as shots of a baseball game as-well-as a cycling race in a purpose-built stadium. Also featured is a pachinko parlour, a coin-operated game and a predecessor to the modern-day coin-operated arcade game. The owner of the parlour known as the Bittersweet School Of Life, Sadao Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) thinks the addictive game is a bad trend that will die out, only history would go on to prove him very wrong. – Ah the nostalgia one can experience for a world never lived in.