In 1995, Studio Ghibli released a movie that, for the first time, was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata: Whisper of the Heart. An exceptional fact for the founders of the studio, who had extremely high expectations. The man behind the animated feature film is discreet and his name is unknown to the public. Yoshifumi Kondō, in fact, just signed his very first work as a director at the age of 45. Whisper of the Heart becomes the highest grossing film in Japan that year and a question comes to everyone’s lips : is Hayao Miyazaki announcing his successor?
Three artists linked by Studio Ghibli
When Yoshifumi Kondō joins Studio Ghibli in January 1987, the company is just born. Only one film had already been released: The Castle in the Sky, the previous year. While Hayao Miyazaki is finishing My Neighbor Totoro, Yoshifumi Kondō is appointed chief animator and head of character design on Tomb of the fireflies by Isao Takahata, which is due out in 1988.
The film is a success and the work of Yoshifumi Kondō impresses both men. He will have the same position on Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1989, and Only Yesterday in 1991. His talent helps to give a very recognizable visual identity to Studio Ghibli which is enjoying great success. Then he is given the role of key animator on Porco Rosso (1992), Ocean Waves (1993), and Pompoko (1994).
Yoshifumi Kondō gradually becomes a central element of the studio, until the day the two founders place the greatest trust in him. In fact, the animator now wants to direct. And he already knows the work he wants to adapt: Whisper of the Heart, by great mangaka Aoi Hiiragi. Hayao Miyazaki agrees to lead the project and even decides to get involved as a screenwriter.
Whisper of the Heart
Yoshifumi Kondō’s film is released in 1995. It follows Shizuku, a young girl entering adolescence. Discovering that all the books she reads in the library were borrowed before her by a certain Seiji, she decides to find this stranger. This quest will lead her to discover what really drives her and to build herself in this pivotal period of her life.
The work uses several elements familiar to Studio Ghibli. Starting with its heroine, Shizuku who breathes a refreshing vitality into the film. Despite her young age, she is intelligent, sensitive, courageous and very spirited. Just like Nausicaä, Fiona, Chihiro, Kiki, Satsuki, etc.
My heroines may need a friend or support, but never a savior. (…) Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.
Whisper of the Heart is also a film where the marvelous and the adventure carry a political ideal, like its Ghibli predecessors. But if Miyazaki’s fight is rather ecology, Yoshifumi Kondō advocates freedom in a conformist world. His film is a call to discover oneself and go against the Japanese school system which aims to standardize students. As Shizuku’s parents say:
Living differently brings difficulties
This film has the particularity of being anchored in reality and in an urban setting. And yet, we feel the same magic as in a fantasy film from Studio Ghibli. If wandering into Shizuku’s imagination allows us fantastic visions, Yoshifumi Kondō is not focusing on that. Because what he knows how to do better than anyone… is create magic in everyday life.
Seize the little moments
In Whisper of the Heart, the most common environments are suddenly sublimated. Overcrowded apartments, rooms, alleys, streets and balconies gain a peaceful, timeless, hovering aura. It means something if the famous image of the lofi-girl, the most followed lo-fi channel on the internet, is inspired by one of the shots in the film. Yoshifumi Kondō gives a soul to all the places he shows us, in which we want to immerse ourselves completely.
The city streets become meeting places, like benches and building courtyards. Whisper of the Heart will also become a turning point in the aesthetics of animated films, thanks to its urban scenes of nocturnal wandering. Yoshifumi Kondō is not afraid of anything trivial. There is nothing exceptional in its story, no great adventure, no end of the world nor enemy to fight. And yet the mystery of the identity of this Seiji has a sweet flavor, the discovery of the hill which overlooks the city is captivating.
While watching the film, we understand that the director knows how to capture the sweet flavor of childhood. We remember all the little mysteries that life held when we still had everything to discover. For Shizuku everything is new: love, the city and this hill, the departure of her sister from the apartment, art, Seiji… Night walks are stolen moments, just like reading instead of doing schoolwork. Diving into herself is an exciting adventure.
The best coming of age movie from Studio Ghibli
The real plot of Whisper of the Heart is an internal quest, a mystery hidden within Shizuku and Seiji. Our two heroes are in search of themselves, of what drives them, they gauge their own strengths. But the film is careful not to treat this quest for identity too lightly. Because the questions that are asked are serious and timeless: how do we know what we like? Which path to take? How far should we persevere?
This is another strong point of Yoshifumi Kondō. Although the heroes may be very young, on the verge of adolescence, they are nevertheless absolutely complete. Their dynamic is just as complex as the meeting between two adults. They learn to know each other, despite their obvious differences, and try to build a future. Seiji is a determined person who knows himself well and knows what he likes. He still has to test his own strength and limits. Confronted with this passion, Shizuku, who tends to be bored and daydream in her dull life, will question herself.
Finally, we see a magnificent love story slowly emerging before our eyes. A love story between two characters who want to pull each other up and support each other, but also a love of family, an acceptance of oneself and a love for music, and for art in general.
The passion at the heart of the film
If the film opens with a cover of Country Roads, by folk artist John Denver, it is no coincidence. Music is of great importance to the plot. In addition to having a particularly impactful original soundtrack by Yuji Nomi, music drives Seiji, it pushes Shizuku to write seriously for the first time, it brings people together in magical, suspended moments.
But music isn’t everything. It is for Shizuku a gateway, an example. Then it’s up to her to understand what passion is, for her. Yoshifumi Kondō, with great finesse, shows the journey of an artist who is developing herself. And he puts his finger on the best way to make it flourish: through a caring environment and long, studious work. Shizuku goes from a child who loves reading and is fascinated by stories, to a teenager who wants to become a writer and will refine her talent.
Seiji must fight against his family who is reluctant to see him devote so much time to his passion. But through hard work and the support of his grandfather, he will be able to test his own strength in Europe. Inter-generational relationships, a subject dear to Studio Ghibli, are taken up with great beauty by the director who is surely only testifying to his own experience as an artist.
Whisper of the Heart is a call to live life fully. What Yoshifumi Kondō advocates is simply that all passion, all talent is sufficient in itself. The desire to create, to communicate through art and creation may lie dormant within you: you just need to delve within yourself and listen to the whisper of your heart.
A dramatic passing for studio Ghibli
In January 1998, at the age of 48, Yoshifumi Kondō dies of an aneurysm in Tokyo. Doctors declare his death to be due to overwork. The man had just completed 24 films and series without ever stopping. Indeed, just like mangakas, Japanese animators have a hellish pace of work. No vacations, very few weekends, impossible deadlines… Intense stress and lack of rest are serious dangers for the body and cause many premature deaths among the greatest artists.
The news is a terrible shock for Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, aware of this loss and the advanced age of its two founders, made several attempts to find new directors. But if some of these attempts succeed in attracting the attention of spectators, none conquers as much as Yoshifumi Kondō and his work. In 2002, a sequel to Whisper of the Heart was even produced by Studio Ghibli, under the supervision of Hiroyuki Morita: The Cat Returns. Adapting another manga by Aoi Hiiragi, the film fails to capture the magic of its prequel and its very childish tone does not speak to the general public.
Yoshifumi Kondō left us a single sublime movie before disappearing. But his work will have had such an impact on Studio Ghibli that it will survive him, continuing even today to infuse all the works of the only remaining founder : Hayao Miyazaki. In the meantime, it is still possible to immerse yourself in Whisper of the Heart to keep dreaming of what this future could have held… Carried by an artist capable of making our simple lives a wonderful adventure.