In Defense of Miyazaki: Thoughts on WHISPER OF THE HEART

Media, Writing

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I used to pooh-pooh the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Back then I’d acknowledge them as technically brilliant, or that they were true achievements of cinematic vision.  But I used to feel they were soft, over-optimistic, naive, or lacking the grit and edge of realism.  By contrast, my touchstone for anime has always been Mamoru Oshii, of Ghost in the Shell fame.  Oshii says of Miyazaki, “His worlds have become just too nostalgic”, and, “[I]t is joyful, it’s eye candy and it is a pleasure to watch his movies, of course.  But . . . people don’t die [in his scenes of military battle, for example], so they are nice to watch but there is no realism”.

I’m usually right there chiming in with the naysayers about Miyazaki films (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa…), that Miyazaki is the Disney of anime (or at least the Steven Spielberg, with all the predictably happy endings).  To begin with, I’m much more partial to anime stories of psychoanalytic self-loathing.  Filling out my Top 10 list are the self-hating anti-heroes of Neon Genesis Evangalion, Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell II:  Innocence, and Barefoot Gen.

But all the while there have been exceptions to my rule.  I’ve fallen in love with anime that most Oshii fans would call sappy or sentimental, mushy or maudlin:  Fruits Basket, FLCL, Castle of Cagliostro, Please Save My Earth, Macross (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross),  Escaflowne, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Some of these can be explained as “not inconsistent” by way of them being mad-cap, slapstick comedy, like Castle of Cagliostro, FLCL, and perhaps Macross.   But how do I explain all the dew-eyed idealism?

Am I going soft?  No, that can’t be it, not with apocalypse and earth-under-attack plots figuring so largely in all of them.  And it’s absolutely not the case that I’m merely lowering my standards of intellectual and conceptual challenge; I value these works so highly that I no longer talk about my “Top 10”, I now always name my Top 15 when discussing my favorites of all time.  So how does an otherwise orthodox Oshii fan like myself remain consistent and still keep The Girl Who Leapt Through Time on his Top List?

Although the film Whisper of the Heart does not make my Top 15, briefly discussing it here could go far in answering these questions.  Written by Miyazaki and produced at his Studio Ghibli, Whisper of the Heart (WOTH) features all the schmaltz of a Miyazaki film:  child protagonists and first love, idealism and nostalgia.  (The film recasts the musical juggernaut of nostalgia “Country Roads” into Japanese, changing the title phrase to “Concrete Roads” for the setting of suburban Tokyo.)  But unlike Miyazaki’s more famous films, WOTH is not a romanticized coming-of-age fantasy in which the protagonist must save the world.  Its hero is merely an adolescent suburban girl trying to find herself, while reacting to the attentions of her first suitor.

What might seem fantastic is the uber-traditional nature of her search for identity–especially in a time (1995) of white-hot digital media and ever more sophisticated sci-fi visions coming out of Tokyo near the end of the millennium.  Our girl hero is seemingly transported back to a more traditional time not by a time machine, but by her love of reading fiction (in actual books!) and by falling in love with a boy rooted in tradition by his folk music family and his craftsman aspirations.  (He’s apprenticing to be a violin maker.)  In other words, our hero’s search for identity takes place in the realm of the arts.

Sure, the film ends with the boy declaring his love for the girl.  But what really matters–the more important conflict–is the girl’s decision to become a writer.  It’s true that, in the closing sequence, our hero’s love interest takes her to see his secret Tokyo sunrise and not only declares his love for her from the proverbial mountaintop, but he also proposes marriage.

Sappy enough?  Yes, but only for a moment.  In the next instant you realize two critical things:  a) that these kids are only fourteen years old, and, b) that the boy is shipping off to Italy for ten years that very afternoon.  The marriage proposal in the final sequence has a stuck-on feel.  It seems to come from out of the blue.  And one realizes this is pointedly artificial.  While romantic stories commonly end in marriage, this one ends with a marriage proposal, only.  It’s sweet and optimistic.  But it’s not marriage.  What’s next (off-stage) is that the boy will immediately leave for Italy, to stay for ten years.  So one has to wonder about this premature engagement;  a lot will happen in ten years.  And this is the point:  while love and marriage may still be fantasies for this particular hero, what her heart is whispering to her is a realism common to all the anime in my Top 15.  This is not the story of the birth of young love, but, rather, another story entirely:  the birth of the artist.

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