Tag Archive | Hayao Miyazaki

Distinctions in happiness

There is a difference between a happy film and a film that makes me happy. OK, so those aren’t mutually exclusive categories. But I think you know what I’m getting at. It’s like the difference between a friend who has a particularly happy personality, and a friend whose presence makes you particularly happy. Both are wonderful to have around, but the respective happiness you feel with either is distinct. The former you are thrilled to see at a party. They liven everything up. They brighten everyone’s mood. The latter sort of friend is the one you find someplace quiet to talk to once the party gets loud.

The happiest film I’ve ever seen is probably My Neighbor Totoro. The happiest movie would have to be a movie about childhood. It’s not simply that it’s easier to be happy as a child. It’s that children more easily accept the possibility of wonder in everything. To a kid, My Neighbor Totoro is a reflection of the world as they see it. It is the opposite of whimsical. The happiest movie also needs to have some sadness in it. That was one of the wisest insights from this year’s wonderful Inside Out. Sadness is the companion to happiness, not the enemy. Both are part of the human experience. My Neighbor Totoro might be Hayao Miyazaki’s most deftly told story. The way he finds moments of joy that rise from moments of despair is heartbreakingly true to life. Most of the film’s sadness comes from the unending worry of two children about their mother, who is sick and hospitalized. The movie’s most joyful moment involves two children simply checking to see if their mother is doing well. This isn’t the happiest movie because it is endless sunshine. It is the happiest movie because you know the sun will eventually peak through the clouds.

The movie that makes me happiest is Whisper of the Heart. How do I define this quality? It is like an old friend. I watch it and feel immediately comfortable, warm, at peace. Your closest friends are those you know the most about; even their imperfections round them out as people and deepen your affections. The same can go for movies. I have spent much time trying to rationalize the strange ending to this movie, which involves an impromptu marriage proposal between its teenage protagonists. It’s the one time where seeing the man behind the curtain might be beneficial to the movie as a whole. Hayao Miyazaki, this time the film’s writer, decided to get preachy about the lack of commitment in “kids these days” by having these kids make an absurdly adult decision. Well, Miyazaki gets preachy sometimes. It’s how he rolls. We know that about him. The director, Yoshifumi Kondo, does his best to craft an epiphany out of the scene. Its aesthetic beauty when no one is talking is radiant. Without Miyazaki’s dialogue, it would have been a perfect ending. Its dialogue-free opening, for that matter, is perfect without qualification. It is as lovely as any movie’s, a slow descent into the Tokyo skyline at night, moving closer and closer until we are at street level. We meet the protagonist, Shizuku, leaving a store. The camera stops descending, and instead we see Shizuku walking home, waving at friends, greeting neighbors. It’s all so cozy, so alive, so familiar, so friendly without declaring it. My closest friendships are defined, for me, by their ease. We pick up where we left off, whether it’s been days or months.

It’s no surprise that Hayao Miyazaki was behind both of these films. Miyazaki’s sense of wonder is his most touted quality as a filmmaker, but I think his best is actually his ability to effortlessly capture basic emotional truths in his films and spin them into beautiful tales. When he makes a movie with the intent of delivering happiness, the screen sings.

Still, it means something to me that Yoshifumi Kondo took a Miyazaki script and turned it into the film that makes me happiest. And I wonder, sometimes, what might have been had Yoshifumi Kondo not passed away in 1998, with Whisper of the Heart as his only film. Miyazaki has made masterpiece after masterpiece. His movies are the life of the party. And it’s Kondo’s one movie that I pull away from the crowd to have a heart to heart chat on the porch.


Three times

It was mid-June, 1993. The perfect warmth San Diego is famous for, mid to high 70s. Don’t ask about humidity. I didn’t know what that was until I moved to Massachusetts.

I was five years old and my life was dinosaurs. Dinosaurs should be a stage of development taught in psych classes. At some point children discover that before there were people, there were massive reptiles, and yes, they were as cool as you hope.

Dinosaurs were my life. I read every book about them in the library, each one with fewer pictures than the last. I collected any and all magazines I could find about paleontology. Dinosaurs had been my main thing for almost a year now. And here was a movie about them, directed by a guy my older sister Mercy assured me was the best and most famous guy who made movies. I didn’t know movies were made by people until this week. I couldn’t comprehend how one would make a movie, as one might make a dinosaur out of clay, or draw a dinosaur with crayons. But Mercy knew things, and I trusted her word: this guy named Steven Spielberg had made other movies I had seen. ET. Jaws. This was a good sign. Mercy also told me that someone named Meryl Streep was the best person at acting in movies. But she wasn’t in this one. I would have to care about Meryl Streep at a later date.

It was the perfect warm. Even in a life lived within constant perfect warmth, this was special. I got a good taste of it, because the line for tickets was all the way around the side of the movie theatre. Edwards Cinema. I wondered who Edward was. It was nice waiting in the sun. My grandmother held my hand tight. She had a vice grip. It was one of the reasons my mom was happy to let her take us places. We couldn’t get free and run loose if we were covered in popcorn grease.

The blast of air conditioning. It’s one of the joyful sudden changes in senses that movie theatres deliver. There are others to come. The overwhelming smell of popcorn. You just can’t get that with an air popper. The sudden darkness of the theatre, the bright orange lights on the floor. It’s a sci-fi experience, walking into a movie theatre at age 5. All this and you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Right. Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs. We see a glimpse of them at the beginning. Scary noises, glimpses of claws. A guy gets eaten. A good start. I didn’t know this was a scary movie, but I’m ready. I know which dinosaurs are carnivores, and so when they are on screen I know there might be something I need to cover my eyes for. Except… my dad’s not here. My Lila never tells me to cover my eyes. What if I just keep watching when it gets scary?

The music swells. That means something. I’ve never noticed that before. The characters, the paleontologist guy and the lady who studies ancient plants (I’ll have my uncle Johnny what that is, he tends to know these things) react to something we can’t see. The music swells and they react. A cold, isolated chill trickles down my spine and through my fingertips. The shot pulls back for the big reveal. Dinosaurs. As real as I’ve ever seen them.



It was March, 2002. I’m a homeschooled, 15 year old theatre kid. I don’t have many hobbies. Movies are starting to become one of them. I’ve started posting on this message board Mercy told me about. Nothing special about it, just a bunch of people who love movies and talk about them and have fun handicapping the Oscars and talking about that and well, I give it a go. TO my shock, they welcome me and my pitiful repertoire of movie knowledge. Lots of the other members are people about my age, eager to learn more about movies, eager to talk about them, wide-eyed at the vast number of movies that already exist, thrilled at the possibilities of falling in love with movies yet unseen.

That’s my problem, I guess. I haven’t really fallen in love with a movie yet.

Not since I was a kid. It almost seems unfair to bring nostalgic movies into the equation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that really bowled me over. One that took me to new places. One that seemed made just for me.

But I watch. I watch endlessly. I’m a homeschooled theatre kid and it’s summer time. No big shows on the slate for a while.

HBO, Starz, and TCM become by companions on my search. I turn them on and watch whatever there is that has just started. It’s not a great way to catch up, but it’s already been paid for, unlike movie rentals. On this afternoon I flip over to Starz and see that a film called Princess Mononoke is on. The title is striking. I turn over to it.

It’s animated. Looks like anime, to be more precise. But lusher and smoother than the handful of anime shows I was familiar with. I try to pick up on the plot. A young man riding some sort of deer is being pursued by warriors on horses. He fires an arrow and one of his pursuers’ heads pops clean off. Another is relieved of his arms. Well, this is charming. But interesting. I keep watching.

It turns out, this isn’t an altogether violent movie. It’s character driven. And what characters. San, a girl raised by wolves, dedicated to killing Eboshi, a ruler as ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuit of power as she is benevolent and loving to her people.

I am hooked. This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. This story doesn’t give me easy answers. A war breaks out, and I want neither side to win, because I like characters on both sides.

And my god, this film is just lovely. I have never been so bowled over by a film’s visual creativity before. A giant boar turns into a spirit that consists of writing, black worms. A benevolent forest god, who looks like a deer by day, turns into a towering sort of kindly kaiju at night, shimmering with starlight.

This is thrilling, courageous storytelling, I think. No easy answers. Flawed characters. The movie ends with everyone having been deeply affected by the conflicts. And the final shot is the film’s loveliest, silently conveying hope after and endless onslaught of conflict. The movie ends. I sit back in my chair, dumbfounded and in tears.

I’ve found it.


I think every movie lover reaches a point where they wonder if they can be surprised. Not if they can fall in love again with a movie. No, that will happen so long as people who love movies continue to make movies. But being surprised, walking out of a theatre with your expectations totally shattered? That’s a special kind of joy.

It’s late August, 2012. I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately. Not much else to do. I’d gotten some bad news. My application for an academic internship has been denied. I’ll have to leave my university-owned apartment in February, not May. I thought I’d be doing work at a magazine or even a newspaper that Fall. Instead I’ll be working at the library. At least that application worked out.

The job meant I could see movies on the regular now. And that’s grand, because there’s a wonderful theatre that’s walking distance from my apartment. The Brattle is like an new friend you feel like you’ve known for a long time. It gets me. It’s small, intimate. Movie posters are plastered haphazardly everywhere. And their lineup delightfully eclectic. Classics. New classics. Tiny arthouse flicks. Movies they just seem to like. Citizen Kane might show one week, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the next. Tonight, it’s a movie I feel like I should have seen before: Mulholland Drive.

I know David Lynch’s work. It’s… odd. But he’s good. The Elephant Man is a favorite of mine, but it’s also one of his more conventional stories I guess. Whatever. Push that out of your mind, JM. Go into this fresh. I get my job-funded bucket of popcorn and root beer and settle into my favorite seat in the house (balcony, front and center).

The movie opens with a car crash, amnesia, and a creepy turn by Ann Miller. Ann Miller, who got her start at age 15 in You Can’t Take it With You. I wonder what stories she had to tell between that film and this one, 65 years apart.

A scene begins to unfold involving a hitman, whose hit goes wrong in every possible way. I know Lynch doesn’t care for conventional narrative, but I’ve never seen a movie jump around quite like this one. And by god, this scene is funny. I haven’t laughed like this in a theatre in a long time.

A scene begins to unfold involving two friends in a diner. Again, we haven’t seen them before. There’s something off about their dialogue. It’s stilted, kind of soapy. One of them men is describing a dream he had. A recurring nightmare. Slowly we begin to realize that the nightmare is on the verge on unfolding for real. The scene turns unrelentingly terrifying. The best sort of scary: where something cosmically indescribable is happening. I haven’t been this scared in a movie theatre in a long time.

A woman is on a stage, singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. This is one of my favorite songs. It’s, on its own, a spectacular rendition of it. I actually want to cry. The two main characters of the film (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring) actually do begin to weep. There’s no particular reason for them to do so. But it makes sense. It makes sense the way dreams do when you’re having them. I have never seen a film capture that so perfectly before, not even a David Lynch film. The singer collapses on stage, is pulled off. Her voice continues to sing. It makes sense.

I walk out of the theatre, feeling like I’ve lost time. I realize that if someone asked me to describe this film to them, I would be hard pressed to do so. I don’t care. I feel a buzz in my step, and there’s a smile on my face as I walk back to my apartment in the dark.

Damn it feels good to fall in love.

Reviewing Ghibli: The Wind Rises

There is an amusing line early on in The Wind Rises that might hint as to why Hayao Miyazaki retired (yes, we’ve heard it before, but let’s go with it for now).

The film often uses a narrative device in which film’s protagonist, aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi dreams about meeting with his hero, Italian engineer and plane designer Giovanni Caproni. Dream-Caproni advises the young Jiro that “artists are only creative for ten years. Make the most of your ten years.”

Another line, again involving an engineer Jiro idolizes, goes the other way. Jiro and his friend and fellow engineer Honjo are lamenting how they may never catch up to the genius of German engineers Hugo Junkers, whose designs they envy artistically, whom the Japanese military envies for other reasons. Even if they make great advances themselves in five years, Jiro says, that’s five more years for Junkers to continue to innovate.

You could apply both these lines of thought to Miyazaki’s career in many ways, and it’s not hard to imagine that Miyazaki is engaging in at least a little bit of self-reflection. Perhaps Miyazaki feels that he is long overdue to call it quits, his career as a director having spanned 35 years now. His most praised film, Spirited Away, was released 12 years ago. His filmography stands against any contemporary director’s. If artists have a ten year peak, it’s easy to imagine Miyazaki sees himself as having had his, and that it’s finally time to wind down.

Or perhaps he sees himself as Junkers, driven to continue setting the bar for other artists to follow. Perhaps that’s why he has continually come out of retirement. There’s always one more idea, one last work of art.

That’s all conjecture over a couple throwaway lines, of course. But they stuck with me after seeing The Wind Rises for a reason. It is Miyazaki’s most personal film, a film by a man in love with flight and creating beauty about a man obsessed with both those things. It also is emblematic of Miyazaki’s most triumphant qualities as a filmmaker and, on occasion, his biggest pratfalls. I don’t know if The Wind Rises is a grand success for Miyazaki or a more mid-level one; it’s simply too fresh on my mind. Such are its weaknesses that I left thinking that this could easily have been the perfect film that it is not. But such are its strengths that it is his first film since Spirited Away to linger so vividly on my mind afterwards.

This is Miyazaki’s first film with no fantasy elements. And if it is his last film ever, that’s a shame; his signature touches make for a wondrous translation of the real world into his animated realms. I often see western critics puzzled by the increased likelihood of anime to take place in a world that does not require animation. Why not just film it?

But live-action-as-default is no less arbitrary than choosing to animate something. All films attempt to create a world we want to spend our time in. Live-action is no less fiction than animation. And I cannot imagine any current live-action director using the screen as a canvas like Miyazaki does here.

At times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the corners of the screen, which were continually brimming with detail, nature, people going about their lives, colors, life. Miyazaki has never been one for a static canvas, but he outdoes himself with this film, which balances the calm demeanor of its protagonist with a screen that never stops moving.


Miyazaki constructs some virtuosic scenes here. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is portrayed vividly, with the quake literally rippling across the ground like a shockwave. The scene plays out at length, allowing Jiro to meet the character who is both part of the film’s centerpiece, and ultimately its biggest problem. A young girl named Naoko is traveling on the same train as Jiro when the quake strikes, and Naoko’s maid is injured. Jiro helps them reach safety in a sequence both patient and urgent, observant of the devastation of the quake as it focuses on Jiro’s single-minded aim to rescue these particular people.

Of course, Jiro eventually meets Naoko again. They fall in love almost instantly. Naoko is also sick with tuberculosis, and spends much of the film bedridden. Without divulging too much, I saw Naoko as a missed opportunity for Miyazaki. Once she returns to the film, she is given little to do but be supportive of Jiro. Actions take place off screen that I regretted weren’t given their own scenes. At one point, Jiro’s younger sister Kayo (a classic Miyazaki scene-stealing supporting character) visits them. She tells Jiro that she has become close with Naoko. Their friendship is essential to one of the film’s most significant scenes. Couldn’t we once have seen Naoko and Kayo on screen together? Such a scene wouldn’t have disrupted this patient and observant film, and done far more for giving their friendship weight than Miyazaki telling us about it. It’s an odd misstep for Miyazaki to underwrite a character as significant to the story as Naoko.

Jiro has more than his share of scenes that do little more than show him forging relationships and friendships. These scenes are uniformly pleasurable. An array of characters fill the screen, none of them throwaways. But Naoko is not just a supporting player; she is a character of huge significance to the story. The film suffers for her being shortchanged.

Issues with Naoko’s writing aside, the film nails the element at its heart: the wonder of flight. Miyazaki has never hid his love for flight, and here he has finally composed his love poem to it. He views Jiro as a humble artist, aching to create the work of art that he envisions so clearly in his head, and dismayed that his creations are going to be used in warfare.


The Wind Rises hums along, avoiding a typical plot arc. There isn’t a single villainous character. Naoko’s battle with tuberculosis provides more drama than the central plot. Jiro simply wants to make things fly, and fly beautifully. And every time they do, it is a triumph, for him and for us. And unfortunately, what makes his planes beautiful is also what makes them appeal so much to military forces. He speaks of making a perfectly smooth, light plane, minimizing air resistance. He casually says that guns would weigh the plane down too much, so they can be discarded. He doesn’t seem to, or chooses not to, grasp that for armies and air forces, the guns are the  point; the planes are merely their flying mounts.

If Miyazaki has ever had a fairly consistent weakness, it’s been plotting his arcs and ending his stories on the right note. Miyazaki has no equal at constructing worlds and setting them into motion. But sometimes, he has some trouble knowing when and how hard to hit the brakes. The Wind Rises’ loses its footing in its last scene. It addresses the plot elements that need to be addressed and then ends. It doesn’t quite have the gravity that its overlying tone of deep regret demands. And its final message, exemplified by the Paul Valery quote that gives the film its name (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) doesn’t have as much impact without that gravity to rise against.

This is uneven, imperfect Miyazaki. But it is also gorgeous, bittersweet, haunting Miyazaki. It’s one of his most flawed films. But films are not tests. We don’t add up a tally of right and wrong answers and arrive at a final score. It’s his most unforgettable film in years. And I mean that in a literal sense. When I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time, I couldn’t sleep that night, its images so stirred my imagination. The Wind Rises has not left my mind. It could have, should have, been better in many ways. Most of the time, it’s a reminder that Hayao Miyazaki’s films contain uncommon grace and beauty. I didn’t want to leave this world he had created, even if, for once, it was my own.

(all media from the official The Wind Rises tumblr)

Past Reviewing Ghibli entries:

Spirited Away

Princess Mononoke

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Whisper of the Heart

My Neighbor Totoro

Reviewing Ghibli: Laputa: Castle in the Sky (or: Miyazaki makes the leap)

The term “The Leap” is often used to describe when someone or something with tremendous potential finally puts it all together and “leaps” into greatness.

Sportswriter Bill Simmons coined the term for athletes who achieve their first truly great season. TV writer Alan Sepinwall often uses it to describe TV shows that need a year or two to figure out what works, what doesn’t, before its creators put together a show that is as good as it can possibly be.

What the hell does any of this have to do with “Castle in the Sky”? Well, I think of this film as the one where Miyazaki took a leap of his own, on his third go as a director. I used to give “My Neighbor Totoro”, his fourth film, that honor. But watching it again, I realized that while “Castle in the Sky” doesn’t quite reach “Totoro’s” levels of perfection, it is the first film where the elements that make Miyazaki’s films so damned appealing are fully, confidently on display. He found that extra something. He took the Leap.

“Castle of Cagliostro” is a splendid action adventure film, a genre work that was part of a much larger, much beloved series. It allowed Miyazaki to showcase his skill in animating action sequences. He compensated for the lack of realism (and a lack of frames-per-second) by flipping realism the bird, leading to delightfully absurd moments like when two cars involved in a chase decide to go straight up a completely vertical cliff.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” saw Miayzaki on his own story-wise, working with his own source material, and the story is where the film stumbles. However, the film is a majestic work, full of images that only Miyazaki could concoct and rich details that only Miyazaki would bother to include. He was on his way.

He found his way with “Castle in the Sky’s” full-blooded sense of adventure and confidence in its characters’ abilities to drive the story. “Castle in the Sky” may be a genre picture (it’s a classic adventure film, with earnest heroes, a dastardly villain, and  a merry band of rogues with hearts of gold) but like the very best best genre films, it transcends the conventions of the genre thanks to characters who we want to succeed because we love them so damn much, and not just because we expect them to.

A key scene occurs near the end (so stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film).

The bulk of the praise aimed at Miyazaki is reserved for his imagination and the strength of his characters. However, he is also an uncommonly delicate storyteller, as evidenced by a pivotal scene in the film’s last act.

The movie has built to a rousing action climax (inside the titular castle), and the protagonists, Pazu and Sheeta, are in something of a Mexican standoff with the evil villain Muska. The relationship between Pazu and Sheeta- close, protective, and platonic- is another staple of Miyazaki films, and their relationship is much more fully realized than either primary male-female relationship in his previous two films.  They possess a gem that belongs to Sheeta, and that gives its carrier monumental destructive power. Given a moment to speak, they agree to use the gem to destroy the castle, with them inside, in order to prevent Muska from wreaking any more havoc.

The scene is carried out with gentle weight and resonance. It’s heartbreaking.

“Nausicaa” was an incomplete but rousing vision of what Miyazaki was capable of. “Castle in the Sky” sees Miyazaki in full command of his craft, effortlessly world-building and creating stories within. His greatest films (for my money, the trio of “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Princess Mononoke”, and “Spirited Away”) show how well he was able to refine various aspects of his style into stories of tremendous emotional resonance. But with “Castle in the Sky”, a thrilling romp, announcing a master’s arrival, is plenty good enough.

Reviewing Ghibli: Whisper of the Heart (or: Ghibli’s stealth masterpiece)

I love Studio Ghibli. I’m going to attempt to review all their movies in the coming weeks, starting with their most understated work of genius: “Whisper of the Heart.”

Has there ever been so animated a character as Shizuku, the teenage protagonist of this gem of a movie? Well, yes. By almost any standard of animation, there have been characters vote actively animated, more detailed, more vibrantly moving, more adverbally verbing than Shizuku. Let me rephrase: has a character ever seemed more unbound from animation than her? In a film with virtually action, Shizuku is constantly in motion, usually entirely on her own accord.

One of Yoshifumi Kondo’s most ingenious decisions as director of this film was to never let Shizuku, especially her face, remain still. She’s allowed to shift from a split second of annoyance to beaming with excitement in the amount of time that’s damn realistic for a teenager (i.e., about two hundredths of a second or so). Animated characters, as an understandable requirement of a medium that requires immense work for even a second of film (be it hand drawn, stop-motion, or CGI) animated characters are typically purely responsive. They react. That’s how we glean their emotions. Subtler personality exposition is usually not necessary to make an enjoyable film, and the best of, say, Pixar’s crop of films can add layers through increasingly sophisticated storytelling and character interactions.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with characters having a 1:1 relationship between their visible emotions and the visible causes for said emotions. But it’s pretty wonderful that “Whisper of the Heart” breaks this mold, with a character who is responding to both her environment and her feelings, not the requirements of the plot. It makes the film, whose story might be the simplest of any Ghibli film, feel deep and true, and prevents it from stretching its story too thinly.

Shizuku isn’t just a conduit for the story. You follow the story because you’re invested in her. “Whisper of the Heart” is one of the warmest films in the Ghibli canon, beaten perhaps only by “Ponyo”. There are no great perils here; only those of the teenage heart. The opening shots are so cozy and beautiful that they move me to tears. They invoke Woody Allen’s legendary opening of “Manhattan”, which juxtaposed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with shots of the Manhattan skyline, creeping closer into Central Park, Broadway, weaving into and out of the streets. “Whisper of the Heart”, of course, opens with Olivia Newton John’s cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads”. A seemingly disastrous combo of corniness, but damn, that sweeping chorus, coupled with some gorgeous drawings of a Tokyo skyline at night, slowly closing in on the modest apartment where Shizuku lives with her family, make for one of the most beautiful and inviting of animated opening sequences.

If “Manhattan’s” opening is cinematic tiramisu, “Whisper of the Heart’s” is a big bowl of ice cream.

(Sadly, I can’t embed from Veoh, but you can watch the opening of the film here.)

It’s so damn easy to just fall into this movie. Its rhythms are familiar, but the tune seems drawn from real life. The romantic primary story is barely a romance at all. Half of it is Shizuku fantasizing about meeting the boy of her dreams, the one who reads all the same library books as she, all the while avoiding this classmate of hers who pisses her off. Naturally, they’re the same person. Again, the beat is familiar. But the characters (both Shizuku and Seiji, the boy) and the world they inhabit (supporting cast included) are so natural, so realistic, that the film never falls back on relying on cliches to drive the story. The characters are why we are watching. We want them to be happy.

This is a film of moments that don’t telegraph their point. Many scenes happen for the sake of making the film’s world a little bigger, a little wider, a little more realized. A side plot involving a romance between two of Shizuku’s friends at school is entirely unnecessary from a plot perspective. But it serves the storytelling very well. It juxtaposes comparative lack of maturity of Shizuku’s friends with she and Seiji. It shows how damn serious first loves can be (from the teenage perspective). And yeah, it leads to some great, funny little throwaway scenes, like when Shizkuku mouths silent insults at her best friend’s crush during class. Life isn’t on a plot line. Shizuku’s life, as a whole, IS the film’s plot. Little details add to its realism.

Two scenes do diverge from this sense of realism, and somehow, they both end up working. First is the scene where Shizuku and Seiji end up singing “Country Roads” together at his grandfather’s shop. Everything about this scene should be a disaster. The song is corny. The situation is corny. It shouldn’t work. It does.

Why? The scene didn’t feel shoehorned, as musical sequences usually are. In “Once”, when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sing “Falling Slowly” in a music shop, we don’t think for a moment that they’re there for any other reason than for the film to feature “Falling Slowly”. I’m not dissing “Once,” of course. It’s magnificent film, and the scene works because “Falling Slowly” is one of the best cinematic songs of all time, and the song itself is an act of superb storytelling within the film. It’s just that getting there took some gentle force feeding. Once the food was down, the earnestness of the performance made it work beautifully.

True earnestness is hard to do well in film and impossible to fake. When it’s faked, it’s impossible to stomach, like an emotional uncanny valley.

But characters who are believably earnest give freedom to the story. Suddenly they can act and speak as if it comes directly from their hearts. We no longer sense the beats of plot when we believe the characters are acting on their own motivations. “Whisper of the Heart” couldn’t afford to have this scene force-fed, because this song was not meant to be a showstopper.

And the conversation leading up to the song is just perfect. Teenagers are so rarely allowed to talk to each other like teenagers in movies. “Whisper of the Heart” captures a side to teenage conversation that films rarely do: that single-minded, earnest directness that dissipates around the college years, and the little verbal mazes you navigate when you realize you like someone but don’t know how to tell them just yet. Shizuku and Seiji’s conversations are never romantic proclamations and heavy handed plot obligation. Their bickerings at the beginning of the movie are not just a meet cute. They’re honest moments. Seiji rudely (good naturedly, but rudely) picks apart Shizuku’s translation of “Take Me Home Country Roads”. Shizuku considers it a grave insult and decides to make an “enemy” of Seiji. Even when they begin to like each other, they both keep their defenses up; him with his guarded personality and self-deprication, she with the leverage she has on him for what he said to her before he began to like her. The song is an organic result of their conversation, and it feels like a release for both of them (for him, because he’s falling for her and wants make up for his rudeness to her before, and for her because it’s a rare moment of completely letting go of her self-consciousness).

The result is a joyful scene that somehow isn’t treacly.

(same story with Dailymotion. Here’s the  the link to scene)

The ending of “Whisper of the Heart” is much-debated. I won’t spoil it here, but my here’s my general view on it: whatever message Miyazaki was trying to send, I think it is overcome entirely by the delivery of the lines as directed by Kondo and delivered by the actors. It comes off as two teenagers who think a little too highly of themselves doing just that, one last time. And I don’t hold it against them. Their earnest high standards are part of what make them so lovable. (thanks to oh-totoro, kikaider and evanjellion for the gifs!)

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