Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995), and my favorite animated films

Discussion in a film by:

Kevin John:

Dear Tinas and Louises -

I'm starting to think I have a biological blockage preventing me from giving a rat's ass about feature-length animation. Witness:

1. I think HEAVY METAL is the worst film ever made (not that I think about such things often).

2. FRITZ THE CAT is up there too (or is that "down there?").

3. BAMBI is the most overrated film of all-time (assuming anyone still rates it highly).

4. FANTASIA follows very closely behind.

5. Why on earth anyone would opt to see AKIRA before, oh, any of Brakhage's hand painted shorts is beyond me.


7. And now I hate WHISPER OF THE HEART. When sitting through these things, I always ask myself "Why is this film animated?" And in the case of WHISPER OF THE HEART, I honestly have no clue. I suppose I should be asking the opposite of other films: "Why is, oh, RIO GRANDE not animated?" But there's a related question to ask of WHISPER: "Would this film be special were it not animated?"

And here I have more of a clue - no! Apart from some pretty scenes with that debonair kitty cat, most of the film is shot in ye olde long shot-medium long shot-medium close up-shot/reverse shot-zzzzz style. Where's the animation Hawks? Who is its Mizoguchi?

This is without mentioning the film's practically bullying sense of a life
trajectory. OK, I can sorta understand junior high schoolers feeling career pressures this early in their lives. But romance? I mean, hand-wringing, "I (already!) found my soul mate" sturm und drang kinda stuff. Sheesh - the main heteros threw themselves around almost as stormily as Maria and Marlon in LAST TANGO. Heavy, miserable stuff. Where is the magic in all this?

My ostensible question for y'all then: given the above, should I even bother with GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES and/or SPIRITED AWAY?

For what it's worth, I absolutely adored A SCANNER DARKLY. Now there's a film that needed to be animated or would have been much lesser had it not been (or had it not been animated in the way it was). Every single frame of that film gave you the feeling of a world infinitely scannable, a perfect bon bon to the keepers of various Patriot Acts. It also highlights what few resources we have at our disposal to avoid perpetual scanning. A quantum leap over the parade of know-everythings in WAKING LIFE. Adorno would have loved it.

And what's with all these people professing not to understand the thing? I didn't read the novel and I grasped the film fine. Rick's précis a few weeks back seemed like a clearly stated plot synopsis. What's not to get? It's all right there on the surface anyway.

Another favorite: THE IRON GIANT (am I hopelessly Western in thsi regard?)


The very gay and thus one-sided Kevin John

From Kevin:

In all seriousness, I found WHISPER unbearably oppressive. To my eyes/ears, it never stood back to examine these imperatives of career and, especially, love.

Whoa, hold on--examine what? Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor (not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?). (Whispers) is a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?

As for the "why is it animated?" schtick, well,
I've heard it a thousand times, and will probably hear it a thousand more--the genre of ultrarealistic anime in Japan is quite popular, and the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are in my opinion fine examples. Why so many I don't know--maybe the people who enjoy it are idiots?

The more interesting question is: why doesn't America do this sort of thing? Well, that rotoscoping bit in Bakshi's American Pop--but that's notable as the exception more than the rule, and even then it was roundly reviled. Why do Americans insist that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'

In the case of Grave, the best answer I can think of--and I don't consider it definitive, not by a long shot--is that animation was the chosen medium of this particular filmmaker. If it had been done live-action, it would not be Takahata doing it (and in fact it has--a live-action mini TV series, interesting in that the focus was more on the 'villainous' aunt's point of view), and even if he DID do it (he's done live action--documentaries, if I recall correctly), it would probably be done differently.

Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed Whispers, was animation director in Graves, by the way. Isao Takahata--who's the equal if not superior of Miyazaki--shows breathtaking range, from war drama (Graves) to domestic drama (Only Yesterday) to light family comedy (My Neighbor the Yamadas--which I prefer to Edward Yang's Yi-Yi), to epic ecological fantasy Pom Poko). I do think he's far less sentimental than Miyazaki.

Iron Giant was okay--maybe the best American animated feature in recent years. It's not on the same level of sophistication and subtlety as Studio Ghibli, though, at least in my opinion.

And as for animation in general--well, I love Dave Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, Jan Svankmajer's Faust, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Paul Grimault's The King and the Bird, Taiji Yabushita's The Orphan Brother, Takahata's Grave and Pom Poko, Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know lists are frowned upon round these parts, but someone asked; I responded.

Michael Kerpan: I prefer the work of Takahata to his junior colleague Miyazaki. And I prize the work of Yoshitoshi Abe (artist and sometimes writer) as much-- he is the visual eye behind Texhnolyze and the creator of Haibane Renmei (albeit not the director).

Michael--Haibane Renme IS intriguing--I like it that they never explain too much, and that the imagery is as surreal as it is soft-focus. Technolyze I need to see more--I could barely make it through the first episode.

Neon Genesis--oh, it's okay. Excellent mecha stuff, with a few subversive elements (the cannibalism, the outre violence, the emotional extravagance). I do think it's monumentally self-centered, and that the main character is ill conceived--more annoying than interesting, a real whiner). It does have a masterful 'clip show' (Death and Rebirth, especially the Death part--love the counterpoint with the musical sessions, as if linking what the director was doing to what the instrument players were doing--variations on a theme).

I might recommend another series,
Master Keaton (note: Keaton discussed near bottom of webpage (additional note: just inserted additonal material on succeeding episodes)), some kind of archeologist / adventurer / insurance agent who ranges all over the world, fighting crime and injustice on behalf of Lloyd's of London. Witty, sometimes very well done. Realistic animation, I'm afraid--but here we go again.

Kevin John:

> Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor(not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?)>

Well, it's always healthy to step back from such imperatives. But SINGIN'wasn't ostensibly about these relationships. It offered soooooo much more than mere possible couplings, het or homo. And it certainly wasn't about finding a soul mate (at, what, 12 years old?), a venal idea that sets up cruelly unimplementable expectations in so many dreamers, both het and homo. By contrast, WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very little else. As I stated previously, it's more than probable than I'm missing something. But so far, I haven't heard any substantial defenses of the film.

Michael Kerpan opted not to defend it due to the apparently bullying nature of my post and I respect that 100%. But, Noel, you say: "It's a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?"

It seems as if this film is impervious to criticism, positive or negative.Why can't we deconstruct light romantic comedies? (They might require it even more.) We're critics, are we not? Isn't that part of our job? (Oh and judging from IMDb and Amazon comments, you'd NEVER imagine that WHISPER was not a major film of ANY stripe. In fact, the almost unanimous euphoria greeting it makes one think Citizen Kane and Gertrud had a baby and named it WHISPER.)

I talked about all this with a friend last night who loves WHISPER and owns some Ghibli box set. He said he didn't even remember any of this soul mate hand-wringing. But he did offer that he simply loved the look of the thing; he loved marvelling at all the details which obviously (and thankfully, I'd say)tore him away from the story. Is that a sophisticated analysis? No. But at least it was something.

Well, I did step back from that question and tried to look at films from the other direction ("why isn't this film animated?") so at least grant me that.

I'll leave that to Fred Camper to answer.

Again, there's the great A SCANNER DARKLY. So I'm clearly not one of those Americans who believe "that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'" And for the record, I don't consider SCANNER very science fictiony much less fantastical. Also, THE IRON GIANT as well as all the great Fox Sunday amination series are at least as realistic as WHISPER, no?

Finally, thanx for reminding me about great feature-length animation I forgot. Big fan of Lotte Reiniger's ADVENTURES OF PRINCE AHMED as well as Svankmajer. Hoberman's right - CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE is indeed one of the ten best films of the 1990s (so was Cronenberg's CRASH...and so was SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE [big up to Brian for spilling his love for all those skyscrapers growing like jungle vines]).

Momma I'm so sorry I'm so obnoxious,
Kevin John

Michael Kerpan:

> WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very littleelse.

Not even close to true. The boy is obsessed with violins. and the girl is obsessed with finding some talent -- and she focuses on trying to write.

I don't really consider Scanner Darkly animated--rotoscoping seems more like a stylization than anything. I do like it, but I can take it with or without the rotoscoping (or whatever they call the digital equivalent)--maybe slightly better without, as I think fantastical sequences are better served by a realistic background or setting. And I was thinking the Cronenberg of Naked Lunch could have made interesting work on this film--I can hear that jazz score playing around the movie's narrative.

I agree with Michael--the soul-searching is just one element; as important is their need to excel at what they do--the boy at violin making (it wasn't in the manga from which this was adapted), the girl at writing stories.

Should we criticize lightweight romantic comedies? Sure. Should we ask them to assume weight and profundity? Hell no--then they wouldn't be what they are. Do it as an exercise, perhaps? Maybe, but where does this particular exercise get us?


Anonymous said...

I loved Whisper of the Heart--and I don't think I'd classify it as whispy romantic film. A large part of it is also about growing up and mastering a craft and by extension finding a place in the world. I don't think I've ever seen a film that so acutely depicted the emotional havoc of trying to write. Whoever complained about the soulmate business has let his own romantic disappointments get in the way of enjoying one of the film's more fable-like and deliberately unrealistic elements. And based the experiences had by my friends, that soulmate stuff is not as rare as one might think.

Noel Vera said...

I don't consider wispy romantic as necessarily a flaw--think Lubitsch or Sturges. In fact, I'd say making something gossamer light is more difficult than making it thunderingly tragic. More control is necessary. More sensitivity too, to appreciate.

technodelic said...

Thanks for your reviews and comments! I bought Whisper Of The Heart to round out my Ghibli collection, hearing that it was more of a "light hearted romance" and not expecting much. It broke my heart to hear the wonderful way Seiji's grandfather talked to Shizuku about how to cultivate her art, and how he advocated for Seiji with his parents. I didn't have anyone to say those things to me in my twenties when I most needed to hear it and when it might have made a difference in my career path. Now I have a son and this movie gives me guidance in how to cultivate his passions as he grows up.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the lovely comment