Even though many people believe Ghilbi equals Hayao Miyazaki (and to a lesser extent Isao Takahata), through the years a few other directors have earned a chance to prove their worth. In 1995 it was Yoshifumi Kondo's turn to honour the Ghibli name and with Whisper of the Heart [Mimi wo Sumaseba] he accomplished exactly that: the film bathes in Ghibli magic and blends in perfectly well with the rest of the Ghibli catalogue.
After earning his stripes as an animator on a slew of Ghibli projects, Kondo was slated to become the successor of Miyazaki/Takahata after their retirement. But just three years after completing Whisper of the Heart Kondo died of an aneurysm, said to be caused by his erratic work schedule. A big blow to Ghibli and Miyazaki, who promptly adjusted his own pace of working.
Even though a great director was lost to the anime scene, we'll always have Whisper of the Heart to remember him by. It's one of the lesser known Ghibli films, most probably due to its slow pacing and lack of overtly fantastic elements. It would be a good companion piece to Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro though, as it approaches the hardships of a young girl trying to find her place in the world in much the same way Takahata's film did.
Shizuku is a young girl who loves to read. She devours the books of her school library, until one day she discovers there's an even bigger book fanatic at her school. Every book she borrows has the same name on the renting card, which prompts her to find out who this mysterious reader is. It's the start of a journey that will lead her to a family of musicians, ultimately showing her the way to what she truly desires in life.
Visually Whisper of the Heart is starting to show its age. Where older Ghibli films still look amazing, Kondo's film lacks true genius. The drawings aren't as overwhelming and while the animation is good it misses these tiny little details that make Miyazaki/Takahta films stand the test of time. There are some lovely dream sequences, beautiful sunsets and more than a few trademark moments of wonder, but nothing that stands out across the length of the film. It's almost impossible for Kondo to live up to the standards of his masters and it may be a little unfair to compare his work directly to theirs, but it's a Ghibli film after all and the gap in quality is noticeable. With all that said, Whisper of the Heart is still a high quality production that is incredibly easy on the eyes.
The soundtrack is the only part that deviates clearly from the Ghibli norm. It's slightly more modern, a little quirkier too compared to Hisaishi's typical Ghibli output. On top of that Kondo plays around with John Denver's "Take me Home, Country Roads", which is given a nice place in the film's plot. As for picking a dub, it's a given that the Japanese dub should be preferred, the American dub feels absolutely flat and lifeless in comparison.
Much like Omohide Poro Poro, Whisper of the Heart is a film that slows you down. It gently eases you into the world of Shizuku, which is held together by a leisurely summer atmosphere and just the slightest hint of drama. There are no big emotions or life-turning events (although in this case there are, it just doesn't feel that way), but that's exactly what makes these kind of Ghibli dramas so special. It just slides by, leaving you dosing off with a warm and gentle feeling.
Kondo's first film is a perfect match for the Ghibli brand. It lack the true stand-out moments that define the work of Kondo's elders, but apart from that it's a wonderful film that will leave you wondering what else the man could have made if he hadn't succumbed to his work. Even though Whisper of the Heart is ageing a little faster than other Ghibli films, it's still worth your time as it's bound to leave you amazed at the artistry that houses behind the walls of the Ghibli atelier.