Monday, February 17, 2014

Whisper of the Heart

"I wanna know where children would go if they never learned to be cool"
- from Going North by Missy Higgins

How many of us truly remember being thirteen? The veneer of nostalgia stifles the poignancy of our former being, fabricating a past to validate our present, an imaginary child-self serving only to glorify adulthood, a delusional, eviscerating extroversion of what was once the self. Thus we betray ourselves into insignificance, imagining youth as the passive clay to be shaped by elders' iron fist. As adults, we imagine that the young are nothing without us. It is no more glorious, no less embarrassing a delusion than that. Patronizing, denigrating, defaming youth, ridiculing the little ones makes us feel big. In this quest for validation in the present we gladly sacrifice our past, our core, the once-vibrant ego around which we the malformed shell, the hollow pretense of mature respectability, still revolve.
We willfully forget our struggle.

Whisper of the Heart is not necessarily what one pictures when thinking of Studio Ghibli. It is not a grandiose, exuberant fantasy like Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle or Spirited Away. It begins instead like the studio's lesser-known, more mundane slice-of-life films like Only Yesterday or Ocean Waves. However, while those have their own charm they are also in danger of losing themselves in somewhat stultifying hyper-realism. In contrast, Whisper portrays a rich fantasy world overlaid on mundane city life, not as an alteration of reality but as the perception of a perceptive mind. It dredges up the moments of wonder we miss all around us, seen through the prism of a sensitive, intelligent, creative individual.

"The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth 
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."

That is the core of what makes for a workable slice-of-life story. A day in the life of a normal human is dull. A day in the life of an interesting person can be interesting. Whisper is a story about creativity, about the dogged insistence on seeing more to the world than the crass mechanics of human social ritual, more than the deterministic chore of "growing up." It is in many ways the antithesis of that most despicable literary crime, the "coming of age" story in which some naive youth is beaten into a socially acceptable form by patronizing elders. From dappled sunlight on concrete and the nostalgia for library sign-out cards to hoards of artisanal treasure hidden in the belly of of modern city and dreams of faraway lands, there is always more to life than the grind. There are gems to be found in dull rocks. Shizuku must decide what to do with her life, yes, but to her the answer is not an easy, monosyllabic, monochromatic "job" or the singleminded race for social approval. She struggles and hesitates, rallies and re-assesses and remains always the principal agent of her own becoming.

However, the truly delightful touch which puts this movie above other stories of exceptional individuals struggling for integrity and personal growth is the thin thread of hope running throughout. Not rampant, delusional optimism but the frail, rare connection of possibilities. If you had declared in 8th grade that your high school entrance exams had taken a back seat, that you had something you needed to do, more important than proving yourself to the establishment, what would your parents have said? Are there people like Shizuku's father in the world, or Nishi the antiquarian? Are there objects of meaning like the Baron's statue? Are there oases of wonder and peace which float above the cities?

Are there any youths who refuse to lose themselves in the all-too-human, mechanistic devolution of fatalistic aging, refuse to let that barest whisper of the self be completely silenced?

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