I understand that there will be some people out there who enjoy broken records playing nightmarish karaoke versions of ‘Country Roads’ in equally broken English. These people may even be delighted by the courtship and eventual betrothal of a bookish prepubescent violinmaker and his lonely novelist-girlfriend. So when these perverts get out of prison, they can get off the streets and catch Whisper of the Heart. Hmm, there’s something about watching two 13-year-olds getting their mack on that just doesn’t translate well to Western culture.
And it starts off so well too! Our protagonist, Shizuku, notices the same name above hers on every library book she borrows: Seiji Amasawa. The identity of her kindred spirit quickly consumes her, as does a secluded curio shop filled with all sorts of magical bric-à-brac. Up to this point, the fingerprints of legendary Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote the script, linger heavily all over the film: the marginal Shizuku and her enchanted world could easily substitute for Chihiro in Spirited Away or Satsuki in My Neighbour Totoro.
However, the promises of the wondrous and sublime are never realised, as the lion’s share of Whisper is too concrete and mundane to warrant its highly polished animation. For my money, there’s too much Alice and not enough Wonderland.
Much better is Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko. The last time I saw Takahata, he was revealing the incorrigibly bleak effects of Tojo’s surrender on two impossibly cute orphans in his classic animated adaptation of Grave of the Fireflies. Part Animal Farm, part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pom Poko details the devastating effects of Japan’s economic growth and building development on a community of anthropomorphic raccoons. That’s right – according to Japanese mythology, raccoons can change shape (so can foxes). Hence, an army of raccoon eco-terrorists is born, to stymie the human enemy at every turn!
The ecological themes and mythological imagery are also stock subjects for Miyazaki – he is credited as a producer – but Takahata manages to inject some of the craziest laffs I’ve ever seen without ever compromising any of his weighty motifs. He also gives a great lesson in the different levels of representation available in animating characters: when the raccoons are run over, their corpses appear starkly real, but when they’re partying they look more like Winnie the Pooh, and when they’re duking it out they resemble the Ewoks, with a hint of Usagi Yojimbo.
It might be a dash too long, and spend an unhealthy amount of time on the tensile strength of raccoon testicles, but while you wait for the Antipodean release of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – when can we see it, Mr. Gosden? – you could do a lot worse than check out the hilarious joie de vivre of Pom Poko.
Mimi Wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) (1995)
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko (Pom Poko) (1994)
Directed by Isao Takahata
Paramount, World Cinema Showcase