Don't let that image above fool you: upon its release in 1994, Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart was one of the most grounded Studio Ghibli films to date. Like 1991's Only Yesterday, this is an entirely realistic coming-of-age tale with few mystical elements, no song-and-dance numbers, and a lighter emotional weight than, say, Grave of the Fireflies. Our story follows Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old bookworm who's hit two snags while prepping for the summer's high school entrance exams: boy trouble and a lack of confidence in her writing abilities. While digging through her latest stack of library books one evening, Shizuku notices a strange but undeniable pattern: the name "Seiji Amasawa" appears on every punch-card, and it's not long before this little mystery starts gnawing away at her curious nature.
Divided into three obvious tonal shifts, Whisper of the Heart unfolds at a beautiful pace: the summer drifts by as we get acquainted with its world, Shizuku is led to charming little antique shop (as well as the mystery person, who's naturally connected to her discovery), and a whirlwind of activity spins into motion once their new friendship blossoms. During their first real time apart as summer draws to a close, Shizuku takes a serious stab at writing, unsure if she'll continue her formal education or pursue what she really loves; meanwhile, Seiji seems to have already made his mind up, and his head start provides the fuel for her dedication. It's a critical time in both of their young lives, and Whisper of the Heart has the good sense to capture these fleeting moments in all their exciting, bittersweet, anxious glory.
Director Yoshifumi Kondo began his work for Studio Ghibli as a key animator on Grave of the Fireflies and contributed to every Ghibli production until 1998, when he died tragically at the age of 47. (It's commonly believed that Kondo's death was directly related to his relentless work ethic; he was also tapped to be the studio's main successor, which even led to co-founder Hayao Miyazaki's first of many retirements a year after Princess Mononoke.) It's almost fitting that Whisper of the Heart, which so prominently features a writer working feverishly to pursue her dream, would be Kondo's first and only film as a director: there's an obvious perfectionism to its animation and structure, as it captures one of the most realistic worlds in Ghibli's deep catalogue of character-driven productions. The visuals here are simply stunning, from fluid and natural body movement to some of most jaw-dropping background paintings in recent memory.
Like a lot of Studio Ghibli's more down-to-Earth films (which also include Kiki's Delivery Service, From Up on Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises, and several others linked above), Whisper of the Heart's charm is obvious the first time through but not fully overpowering; it's the kind of film you know you'll return to and probably enjoy even more on later viewings. I hadn't seen this one in more than a decade but it captured by full attention this time around, as its sights and sounds were even more effective via GKIDS' new Blu-ray presentation. Like other titles in their recent deluge of Ghibli re-issues, it's basically identical to Disney's 2012 Blu-ray so it's obviously aimed at those who don't own that disc already.
Disney's 2012 Blu-ray featured a suitably strong and stable 1080p presentation sourced from a recent master, and not surprisingly GKIDS' new Blu-ray looks more or less identical to my eyes. Though I don't have the tools to do a side-by-side comparison (either on-screen or via captures), I spot checked a handful of scenes from both discs and found no major variances in detail, texture, black levels, compression, bit rate, and color balance. Quite simply, both looked fantastic and virtually flawless, aside from trace amounts of banding during a handful of tricky gradient scenes. Overall, this seems to be a clear case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", so fans will have no reason to be disappointed here.
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Like the Disney disc, viewers can choose between the original Japanese 5.1 track or an English 5.1 dub featuring the likes of Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Cary Elwes, Ashley Tisdale, and more; it was recorded back in 2006 and included on previous Region 1 releases of the film. I've always been partial to the original Japanese, so I mainly focused on that track during the show. It's a great mix with crisp dialogue, strong channel separation, and even a few effective uses of rear channel activity and LFE along the way. Naturally, the most enveloping moments are during music cues and scenes in the busier parts of town, while Yuji Nomi's original score also enjoys a strong presence without overpowering the dialogue. The English track is OK as far as dubs go, but leads to a bit of confusion at times: Shizuku is supposed to be translating an American song to Japanese in a few scenes, for example, but this moment is missed entirely.
Like the previous DVD and Blu-ray, optional subtitles are available as both dubtitles (for the English version, naturally) and a literal English translation of the Japanese track, which has been provided by Studio Ghibli according to the packaging and differs quite a bit at times. An optional French dub and subtitles are also included.
GKIDS' static, silent menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover; a Booklet is also tucked inside, featuring short reprinted essays by producer Toshio Suzuki and screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki.
Everything from Disney's 2012 Blu-ray, basically. These recycled extras include Original Japanese Storyboards that play during the film, a nice collection of time-lapse Naohisa Inoue Artwork dubbed "Four Masterpieces" that runs for over 30 minutes, a short Featurette about the English dub, and a generous assortment of Trailers & TV Spots for the main feature. One very small supplement appears to be new, however: a brief Background Art Gallery for The Baron's story (4 minutes); it's better than nothing, but presented in standard definition with a lot of aliasing and other digital eyesores.
Beautifully directed and animated, Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart was the director's only film before his untimely passing less than three years later. Based on the 1989 manga by Aoi Hiiragi and adapted by Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, it's one of the studio's most down-to-Earth films but supremely effective through its portrayal of great characters unsure of their place in a realistic world. There's an obvious charm here for first-time viewers but, like most character-driven films, Whisper of the Heart has gotten better with age and should enjoy a decent amount of replay value for returning viewers as well. GKIDS' new combo pack, like just about every other title in their recent deluge of Ghibli re-issues, is virtually identical to Disney's existing Blu-ray. Firmly Recommended, but only for new buyers.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.