Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995) v. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai, 1990)
a. Whisper of the Heart
My initial observance of this pair of films is a result of failed expectations
It has been maybe six years since I first saw Whisper of the Heart, when I thought it was a Miyazaki film. Well, I wasn't completely wrong. He wrote the script, based on a manga. But rather than a fantasy-laden speculative fiction, I received a light high school age romantic comedy with a touch of fantasy elements. It was not the Miyazaki I was expecting, and I was gravely disappointed.
On top of this, the dubs on this film were awful. They didn't match the tone of this more realistic comedy, imposing a rather cartoonish overlay on the frothy, realistic humor.
But I know that some on this forum love this film, so I really wanted to give it another chance, especially after watching and enjoying many other lighter Studio Ghibili fare.
In my reconsideration of this film, my first consideration is: Is it a romance or a coming of age film? It has the semblance of a romantic comedy, but the exciting, climatic part is not the end where the two protagonists agree to marry someday, but when Shizuku works to finish the first draft of her novella, it is read and she is a writer. It is about her growing as a person, which she establishes as a requirement before she gets into a romance.
This movie displays the wisdom of the young, which is wise, but strictly self-disciplined. Perhaps too strict in some ways. Both of our protagonists have hard requirements for their lives, while the ideal parental figures recognize that they must be given room to grow and stand out of their way. The sister wants to control, demand the proper path, but she is shown to have no wisdom.
As in all Miyazaki films, hard work is necessary to live a moral life. But this work doesn’t have to follow a set path, nor obey all the societal requirements. Miyazaki seems to always promote a quiet rebellion against the status quo, whether Ashitaka mediating in order to avoid war, Haku sneaking around the bathhouse helping Sen, or Howl's anti-war actions. In this case, it is writing a novel instead of preparing for high school. And if she doesn’t make it into high school? That is the cost she willing to pay if it means that she becomes a more accomplished, unique, fulfilled person.
I love that Miyazaki focuses on and promotes the fulfillment of female protagonists. It is more than worthy to set aside societal expectations to focus on their personal vision, that which they are called by their deepest soul to accomplish. Sure, many men have this ambition, but it is rare for a child’s movie… a movie aimed at girls… any kind of movie.. to tackle this theme head on and to target girls. Miyazaki is constantly telling girls, “You are important. Not just what you can do for others. Not just who you are to your family. Not just who you are for your man. You are important by yourself. You are the one. Your relationships are important, but first be you and find out who you are. Do the hard work of accomplishing yourself before you do all the rest of your life.” This is the theme of Whisper of the Heart. And that is what makes it a glorious achievement, on top of the humor, the touches of fantasy, and the perpetual joy.
For all that, I think that Whisper as a Miyazaki film is weaker Ghibli accomplishment. Not because it isn’t a fantasy, but because the animation isn’t as sharp, the visuals aren’t as stunning. It’s a good animated film, but with Ghibli I expect mastery and we don’t get that here. That isn’t fair, but it is what I want. This doesn’t mean that Whisper isn’t a wonderful entertainment that I would recommend to everyone. But it won’t make the top of my Ghibli list, which contains some of the greatest films ever made. Whisper is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is simply great.
b. Days of Being Wild
I also stumbled a little due to my expectations coming to this Wong Kar Wai film. WKW is a director of focus, of intense mood and tone, sometimes to an extreme degree. This film seems perpetually distracted, as it has so many stories, so many tones it wants to explore that it can’t quite decide. Is it a boy’s film, a relationship film, an action film, a drama? It can’t even seem to settle on who the protagonist is, so we have two or three characters we root for. And the end doesn’t seem to settle anything. It is just there.
We have York, a man about town, who seduces another of our protagonists, Li-zhen. But that relationship quickly dissolves, and we see clearly that they aren’t good for each other. Frankly, York isn’t good for anyone. He is too flighty, too self-centered. Then we have a policeman who is the right man for someone, but we aren’t sure who. It is as if the movie toys with our desires to see one or another pair of characters commit to each other. Then the two male protagonists spend quite a bit of time together and intense situations occur, but that also seems to accomplish nothing.
This is a film which is almost a masterpiece. It is an uncut gem in which the greatness that is WKW can be seen, but only roughly. We see all the pieces there, just undeveloped. The cinematography is brilliant, but rough. The characters are well drawn, but we don’t see enough of them. The style and fashion sense is sharp. The story is interesting, but unfocused. This is all that WKW will be, in future films, but just isn’t, yet.
I love to think of this film as the first in a trilogy in which we see a director move from one stage to another. If I had seen this one first, I don’t know that I would have moved to the others. I will say that this film makes me want to see the other two again to see WKW’s world expand and his talent turn into a powerful, unforgettable beam.
Whisper of the Heart clearly moves ahead, because while both films are brilliant diamonds-in-the-rough, Whisper shines so much more brightly.