‘Whisper of the Heart’ & ‘The Cat Returns’

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Yoshifumi Kondo (1950-1998), who worked in Japan as an animator and director.  He worked in TV animation for several years.  During that time, he co-authored “Animation Book,” a textbook for beginning animators.  He moved into film animation in 1980 when he joined the Telecom Animation Film studio.  In 1987, he joined Studio Ghibli, and worked on several of their films, including 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, 1991’s Only Yesterday, and 1992’s Porco Rosso.  For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be looking back on Kondo’s only directorial effort, the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, as well as the 2002 film The Cat Returns, a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart that also happens to be Hiroyuki Morita’s only directorial effort (so far).

Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995’s Whisper of the Heart centers on a young girl who falls in love with a young man (who irritates her as much as he charms her) and learns to believe in herself when a cat statuette called the “Baron” inspires her to write a story about it coming to life.  Featuring the voices of Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Jean Smart, James B. Sikking, Harold Gould, Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Cary Elwes (in the English language dub), this critically acclaimed film was Japan’s highest-grossing film of 1995 and was also the first Japanese film to use the Dolby Digital sound format.  The film, featuring a script from Hayao Miyazaki, was based on the 1989 manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and features a terrific Yuji Nomi score.  Sadly, this film was Kondo’s only directorial effort (he died of suden aortic dissection before he got to direct more films; he had been considered the successor to Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata).

Directed by Hiroyuki Morita, 2002’s The Cat Returns centers on a young girl who saves the life of a cat who just happens to be the prince of the Cat Kingdom.  The king offers her the prince’s hand in marriage, but her reply is mistaken as a yes.  She flees to the Cat Bureau to find the “Baron” so that he can help her with her unusual situation.  Featuring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, Tim Curry, Judy Greer, Kristen Bell, Andy Richter, and Rene Auberjonois (in the English language dub), this critically acclaimed film grossed $52 million internationally.  Although it’s a spin-off of 1995’s Whisper of the Heart, which also featured the “Baron,” this film actually originated in 1999 as “the Cat Project,” a cat-related 20 min. short film that was requested by a Japanese theme park (which later canceled the project).  Aoi Hiiragi, creator of the original Whisper of the Heart manga, wrote the manga equivalent to the short, which later served as the basis for the storyboards used to create the film.  Cary Elwes voices the “Baron” in both films.

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