I have a new favorite Miyazaki film - Whisper of the Heart. Miyazaki did the screenplay and the storyboard for this charming romantic comedy, produced in 1995 by Studio Ghibli. Shizuku, an aspiring writer who should be studying for her high school entrance exams, instead throws herself into writing her first story. She's never worked this hard at anything in her life. Inspired by her friend Seiji, who dreams of being a violin maker and who has gone to Italy for the summer to try out as an apprentice, Shizuku feels this is her one chance to prove herself. In the end, what they both learn about themselves and their talents rings true for any young artist - you're not great yet but you could be. Keep learning!
What I loved best about this film was its portrait of life in Tokyo. Loving touches - like the way bugs swarm around a florescent light at night, or the way sunlight gleams of metal railings and dapples the ground when it shines down through the trees, or the experience of a ride on a public train - made me feel as if I'd spent a summer in Japan.
Once again, what worked for Ponyo, Miyazaki's latest film, was the setting. I loved the small Japanese port town, the winding roads, the mountains, and the sea. When the typhoon came I felt the power of the wind and rain, and I loved the sheer imagination of the sea magically rising and burying the whole town underwater, with devonian age fishes swimming through the streets.
But, unlike Whisper of the Heart, Ponyo lacked a compelling story. I spent a lot of time wondering what was going on, why the characters were doing what they were doing, and why I was supposed to care. Ponyo, a plucky little fish-girl, the daughter of an evil wizard and the sea goddess, gets stuck in a glass jar and is rescued by a small human boy. Somehow this leads to the world getting entirely out of balance, the moon falling closer to the earth and the seas rising. In order to set things right the evil wizard and the sea goddess arrange a test for the boy, a test which left me scratching my head wondering why I'd been sitting there for nearly two hours if that was all we were leading up to.
I also felt disappointed by the animation. It was much more simplistic than I've come to expect from Studio Ghibli. The backgrounds were brightly colored and impressionistic, the characters were lacking in form. Not one of Miyazaki's better films.