There are numerous reasons for a “one and done” approach to filmmaking, where a director, after helming just one feature to full fruition and release, hangs up their hat and doesn’t stick around any longer in that particular field, either returning to another element of film they started in or simply stopping altogether. Contemporary reception can often be a key factor, and that’s the most commonly cited reason for why actor-turned-director Charles Laughton never stepped into the directing chair again after The Night of the Hunter was savaged upon its release in 1955. Other films just get ignored or have their initial distribution botched, dissuading those who worked so hard from dipping their toe into that particular pool again. This was supposedly the case with Carnival of Souls director Herk Harvey, whose film would later gain a large cult following via late-night television screenings. In fairness to Harvey, he did try to get more films made as a director, and did live to see the belated recognition of Carnival of Souls before passing away in 1996.
Both of the aforementioned reasons are tragic in their own right, but there’s another path of fate that feels especially cruel, especially as it concerns both one of the greatest “one and done” feature films ever made but also a filmmaker who could potentially have shaped a new path for a particular form of filmmaking. The film is Studio Ghibli’s 1995 animation Whisper of the Heart, and the director is Yoshifumi Kondō, who died at age 47 in 1998, only two and a half years after his film’s release, from a heart aneurysm.
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Whisper of the Heart was written by Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki, and, by many accounts, he viewed Kondō as a worthy eventual successor to both he and director Isao Takahata. Kondō’s death, said to have been diagnosed as due to excess overworking, seems to have been the main reason for Miyazaki’s announcement of retirement in 1998, after Princess Mononoke had been released. Though his actual retirement didn’t come then (though is now apparently accurate as of the release of The Wind Rises), it seems to have influenced Miyazaki to work at a considerably more relaxed pace, helming only four features since 1998; Takahata too, meanwhile, has similarly only directed four features since 1998, one of which (1999’s My Neighbours the Yamadas) would already have been in production when Kondō passed. In light of these two still sticking around as the major figureheads of the animation company, and the growing global influence Studio Ghibli has had since the late-90s, it begs a question: what would the world of animation be like if Yoshifumi Kondō had lived to make another film?
In offering a coming-of-age story of a teenage girl within a very grounded framework, bar some memorable fantasy dream sequences that inspired spin-off feature The Cat Returns, Whisper of the Heart resembles little else in the Ghibli catalogue since, but the film does work as a companion piece to Takahata’s 1991 feature Only Yesterday. The key difference is that while Only Yesterday is all about an adult looking back on their childhood, Whisper of the Heart is firmly rooted in the then and now of the experiences of its Japanese schoolgirl protagonist; no recollection framing device, just a foregrounding of the awkward steps of self-actualization as they happen.
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Both films are some of the best coming-of-age tales around, not just in animation, but Whisper of the Heart can be seen as the one that has a more youthful spirit, in that its structure allows for a more palpable sense of possibility, of idealism free of cynicism, and of burgeoning romance without hindsight commentary on its various immaturities. Though this film does have a very positive critical reputation (more so that Only Yesterday, which is just finally getting a release in the U.S. after 25 years), there’s a fairly vocal view that this simple tale didn’t need to be animated; that it could have been live-action and nothing would have been lost. This is a fallacy. Animation allows for this story to reach youth on a level live-action can’t always manage. It’s very difficult to make a coming-of-age feature that doesn’t come across like an adult’s words and notions coming out of a precocious child’s mouth. Hell, one of the more notable live-action successes within the genre of late took 12 years to make.
Where Whisper of the Heart thrives too, where it may not have in live-action, is in injecting magic into its arguable mundanity, bringing to life a fully-realized town for a suburban vista, as opposed to isolating its story within whatever crooks and nannies of a real town they could get a permit to shoot in. The straightforward nature of the compositions and designs also lend a more pure, uncluttered quality that extends to the film’s emotional catharsis. When Shizuku and a group of supporting players break into a performance of John Denver’s “Country Roads” about halfway through, this modest gesture takes on a major stirring quality thanks to Whisper of the Heart’s surrounding aesthetic.
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As Richard Linklater’s live-action Boyhood posits, it’s the simple, little things in life that really get you. The same is true of Whisper of the Heart, and there is one exchange in particular that absolutely devastates both in terms of what it means for its lead but also in the context of the details of Kondō’s death. It’s when Shizuku gets feedback on a story she has been rigorously writing, with the feedback coming from an old gentleman whose store has inspired her flight of fantasy. With the most compassionate of deliveries, he tells her, “You’ve worked so hard. You’re wonderful.” Would that it could be the case that we could tell Kondō the same more often than fate permitted.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.