Movie Review: Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば) (2022)

The bug to remake animated films into live action films seems to have hit the Japanese film industry as well. The latest example of that is WHISPER OF THE HEART, which is based on the hugely successful 1995 anime of the same name by Studio Ghibli. In that film, middle school student Shizuku Tsukishima has dreams of becoming an author. A boy at her school, Seiji Amasawa, has dreams of becoming a master luthier. After a rocky start, the two fall into puppy love but their budding relationship gets put on hold when Seiji decides to go off to Italy for a few months to pursue his dream. The pair promise to remain faithful both to each other and to their dreams until Seiji’s return.

In this version, which is sort of a remake and sort of a sequel, it’s now ten years later — 1998. Shizuka (Nana Seino/清野 菜名) is working as a children’s book editor. Her dream of becoming an author has been dashed because all of her stories have been rejected for publication. Seiji (Tori Matsuzaka/松坂桃李), meanwhile, is still in Italy pursuing his dream of becoming a professional cellist. (Yes, that’s different from the original story but go with it.) With the upcoming marriage of Shizuka’s best friend and flatmate, Yūko, to Tatsuya, both of whom have also been together since middle school, Shizuka starts to take stock of her life. She and Seiji have been holding out for each other for ten years with nothing to show for it save for some correspondence. There’s no widespread email or WhatsApp yet and long distance calling is expensive so what’s a girl to do? She gets on a plane and flies to Italy.

There’s an interesting premise here but writer-director Yūichirō Hirakawa/平川雄一朗 flubs it by emotionally stunting his two adult protagonists. Shizuka is as immature at 25 as she was at 15, singing and skipping her way around rural Japan, and providing audiences with a roster of screeches and sighs everytime she sees, does or tastes something curious. In the words of the late Joan Rivers, “Oh, grow up!” Seiji is not much better as he says to himself that he must keep strong and wait for Shizuka. What’s he waiting for? If he’s so intent on marrying Shizuka, why hasn’t he seen her in the past ten years? He doesn’t even know her! Dear Abby would have plenty to say to these two.

Hirakawa also makes the mistake of devoting far too much of the film’s runtime to flashbacks when the foursome were 15-years-old, hence the film being a sort of remake. (At least he uses a different set of actors for these scenes because there’s nothing worse than having 30-year-old actors playing teenagers.) We don’t need to see such detail of their blossoming love to get the picture. His coup de graçe, though, comes in the film’s final scene which, if you’ve seen the original film, read the manga or are just a hopeless romantic, comes as no surprise. However, what Hirakawa really messes up on is what happens just before the camera fades to black. This is going to be a spoiler so if you’re really intent on not knowing, skip to the next paragraph now. Seiji asks Shizuka to marry him, she says yes and, get this, they hug. Ugh! For Pete’s sake, you’re 25 years old, man! Plant a kiss on her for the first time in your life!

If you’re a 15-year-old schoolgirl or a 25-year-old single salarywoman who still lines her office cubicle with Hello Kitty tchotchkes, then WHISPER OF THE HEART is the film for you. It opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas on February 16th.

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