Whisper of the Heart (US - BD)
Gabe gets to experience this particular Ghibli classic for the first time in 1080p...
Shizuku ( Yoko Honna in Japanese, Brittany Snow in English) lives a simple life where she is allowed to pursue her love for stories and writing. One day she notices that all the library books she’s has checked out have been previously checked out by someone named Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi in Japanese, David Gallagher in English). Days later, Shizuku meets a aspiring violin maker her age whom she finds infuriating, and slowly discovers that he is Seiji, her 'Prince of Books'. Seiji convinces Shizuku that her strength lies in writing, and pushes her to her talents by writing a story about ‘Baron’, a handsome cat statuette that belongs to Seiji's grandfather.
Confession: for some time now I’ve owned a Hong Kong released box set of all of the Studio Ghibli films up to Spirited Away, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (not technically a Ghibli release), and I still haven’t found my way to watching almost half the films found within. I don’t have a good reason, it just seems that whenever I take the time to finally watch Only Yesterday or Ocean Waves I wind up rewatching My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away again. And again. Like a petulant child. Thanks to Disney’s slow trickle of Ghibli classics on Blu-ray (really, really slow) I’m finally forced to not revisit Porco Rosso again, and finally see Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart. I’m greeted with a rich, complex film that mixes Miyazaki’s adventurous and magical themes with ever-popular high school drama tropes. Whisper of the Heart reminds me a lot of My Neighbor Totoro, though its a more mature and ‘realistic approach to the material. The characters are aged up considerably, the pacing is slowed, and the overall sense of angst is increased. I admit the high school elements tried my patience a bit, specifically pace stifling sequences where Shizuku and her schoolmates reiterate plot points, or when the film sidetracks into supporting cast romantic issues. There’s a bit too much talking in general here, especially given Kondo’s talent for telling his story entirely in images. Still, I can’t deny the quality of the strong characterizations, or claim that the slow first half doesn’t pay off in spades as the canvas widens to include more fantastical events.
The film really comes together around the 50 minute mark when Shizuku and Seiji put aside their awkwardness and join is song, playing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads Together’, which is a kind of ongoing theme for the entire film. It’s a transformative, chill-inducing moment that captures the ingrained, tribal joy of creating group music. It’s a clever and efficient means to create a connection between characters without unearned sentimentality. From here the fantasy world elements begin to briefly infiltrate the real world as Shizuku is compelled to write her story, and they play out with the same sense of jaw-dropping awe we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki’s directed features. Watching this unfold, I can’t help but assume Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh took some inspiration from Kondo while making Heavenly Creatures. Though I hadn’t yet seen Whisper of the Heart, I discovered I was plenty familiar with Kondo’s work. Before his sudden and untimely death in 1998 (via an aneurysm, which was blamed on his stress-inducing work ethic), Kondo worked as a key animator, character designer, and/or animation director on a number of influential films, including Lupin III, Little Nemo, Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki's Delivery Service. His direction here is simple and direct, utilizing natural angles, and otherwise generally treating the film as he would a live action affair. The animation varies in quality a bit throughout. It’s pretty obvious that the less fantastical and detailed sequences were handed off to B and C animation teams. When it really counts, there’s no mistaking Whisper of the Heart wears the studio’s quality stamp gloriously, but every so often frame rates dip, movement is oddly restricted, and characters turn a bit blobby.
Whisper of the Heart isn’t a particularly ancient Ghibli catalogue release (it was released in 1995), so the overall quality of the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer comes as little surprise. There’s definitely a bit more grain here than appears on more recent animated releases, but nothing outside of the norm for an animated film made without the help of digital colouring techniques. I noticed some light distortion effects on some of the sharper black pen edges, but very little in the way of edge enhancement or jaggies, and actual signs of print damage are reserved to a handful of jerky reel changes and minor flecks of dirt. Colour quality is rich, and generally much brighter than my anamorphic HK disc (which is likely not as good a quality indicator as the original US DVD release). The painted backgrounds, which feature the more obvious increase in fine detail (especially the more intricately decorated fantasy realms), are mostly clean, without much in the way of noticeable digital noise, and feature sharp contrasting elements. The cell animation itself shows more sign of wear. The colours are still quite vibrant, but feature more impurities, including some minor blocking effects. The detail increase doesn’t do the cells any favours either, revealing dirt and the always odd cell shadows, but these are the charms of the process.
Having clearly learned their lesson after years of fan complaints, Disney is now certain to include both their English dub and the original Japanese dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. This isn’t one of Disney’s better English dubs, so I tended to prefer the sound of the original dialogue (not to mention the performances), but in terms of overall sound design the two tracks are close to identical. For the record, the back of the box signifies that the English track is 48 kHz/24-bit, but doesn’t list the kHz or bit rates of the Japanese track, which leads me to assume the Japanese track is a bit compressed, but my ears didn’t catch anything obvious outside of basic difference in the age and nature of the two mixes. Also for the record, this was the first Japanese film to be mixed and released using the Dolby Digital sound format. The vocals on the English track are a bit warmer and louder, creating a slightly more natural effect, but the Japanese track is rarely too tinny or canned-sounding. Sound effects are comparatively minimalist overall and follow the same basic pattern. The English track puts more emphasis on the ambient effects, like rain and cicada chirps, but in terms of directional enhancements things remain basically the same between tracks. The Japanese track handles Yuji Nomi’s music a bit better, specifically Olivia Newton John’s take on ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, which opens the film. The English track’s tendency to stretch the sound a bit wider over the stereo channels creates some awkward reverb effects. It’s arguable that the English track features the warmer bass fidelity, but the clearer approach worked better for me.
The extras begin with the now traditional original storyboards, which run the length of the film, and are presented in full HD video and 2.0 English dub audio. The featurettes include Behind the Microphone (8:00, SD), an interview with English cast members Brittany Snow, Courtney Thorne-Smith, David Gallagher, Martin Spanjers, Jean Smart, Harold Gould, Ashley Tisdale and Cary Elwes, producer Ned Lot, and English language director Rick Dempsey, and Four Masterpieces of Naohisa Inoue (34:50, HD), a series of the master’s background paintings set time-lapse to Yuji Nomi’s musical score. Things are completed with a Japanese trailer/TV spot reel (10:50, SD), and trailers for other Disney releases.
Deliberate pacing makes for a bit of a demanding film experience, but the effect ends up somewhere just south of brilliant. I thoroughly regret not getting myself together to watch Whisper of the Heart sooner, especially since I’ve had a copy sitting in my house for several years now. I’m sufficiently inspired to take some time for Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and The Cat Returns sometime in my near future. This Disney Blu-ray release is just about everything fans could want in terms of audio and video quality, save perhaps a few minor signs of digital compression, but extras are stark and largely Disney release-centric.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 22nd May 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English and Japanese
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Behind the Microphone, Original Japanese Storyboards, Four Masterpieces of Naohisa Inoue, Trailers and TV Spots, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Cast: Yoko Honna, Issei Takahashi, Shigeru Muroi, Takashi Tachibana, Keiju Kobayashi, Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Ashley Tisdale, Cary Elwes
Genre: Adventure, Animation and Romance
Length: 119 minutes
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