Who knew John Denver was so popular in Japan!
Screenplay By: Hayao Miyazaki
Directed By: Yoshifumi Kondo
The directorial debut, and only directorial effort, from Yoshifumi Kondo is a stellar slice of life tale about young adulthood in Japan. I know the term slice of life is tossed around a lot, but I can’t think of a better term to try and describe Mimi Wo Sumaseba, although it is well beyond such attempts on my part to label such a film. The first thing one notices about Mimi Wo Sumaseba is its honest and authentic feel. It would have been easy in any number of moments for Kondo to go over the top or take an easy route and turn these kids into caricatures of our expectations of how kids should behave, but he never does that. Kondo stays true to the course, delivering a tale of mature young adults who are just as human as any full fledged adult can claim to be.
The adult nature that Kondo imparts on his young characters is refreshing. The exchange between Shizuku and Sugimura where the different love entanglements of their group are put out into the open isn’t something you expect from a movie with characters in this age demographic. The follow up to that exchange with Shizuku breaking down and crying at her desk because she realizes she is just as dense as she accuses Sugimaru of is even more powerful than their actual exchange. But, it doesn’t stop there, because later, Sugimaru goes up to Yuko and apologize in a well mannered fashion. He doesn’t make a scene, he doesn’t pout, despite his anger and the fact that he is hurting over Shizuku’s rejection he does something for someone else because he knows she is in pain. Throughout Mimi Wo Sumaseba this adult tone is kept and it was an enjoyable change of pace.
Don’t let the adult tone fool you, Mimi Wo Sumaseba isn’t dark and depressing. The film carries an airy, lighthearted tone with it. By showing events that appear to be huge in these kids lives alongside other big events for ancillary characters and keeping the tone light the point is driven home that while these events in the lives of the kids may be big they aren’t the end of the world, there will always be a tomorrow. Mimi Wo Sumaseba is quite funny as well, I found myself laughing profusely on more than one occasion, but none moreso than during Shizuku’s “jerk” march.
Mimi Wo Sumaseba starts off with an interesting idea, a library card as the jumping off point for a romance. This along with the interesting musical choices the film makes provide Mimi Wo Sumaseba with a unique feel. It isn’t trying to be just any other movie, Mimi Wo Sumaseba knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. There are so many movies, great ones even, that are cookie cutter in their ideas, but in its combination of music and impetus for the story Mimi Wo Sumaseba is different and new.
It seems like it should be obvious, but the animation in Mimi Wo Sumaseba is amazing. From the opening moments when the cityscape is rendered in all its glory to the closing moments when a morning fog creates an ocean on top of the city. The best moment for the animation was when Seiji comes to Shizuku’s class to fetch her. On the surface it is an ordinary scene, kids talking and getting interested in the new arrival. But, there is so much depth put into the scene. Every one of the main characters has their own facial expression for that moment, and they are all different in their emotional turmoil. But, most impressive was how the animation team handled Sugimura in the background. With the revelation of what is happening with Shizuku and Seiji he is crushed, but they don’t make him the focal point of the shot. He slinks into the crowd of the class, he is so hurt that he disappears into the mob, and in that moment the animation provides the calling card for the great attention to detail and depth that it will be put on display for the entirety of the picture.
It’s a sign of great writing and direction when in a single moment both comedy and a bit of sadness are presented to the audience. Kondo, and screenplay author Hayao Miyazaki, have woven a tremendously layered story that is capable of the emotional gamut. One second the characters are happy and so are you, but then the next sadness has befallen our characters and as is the human condition we are sad as well.
Those emotional swings speak to the theme of Mimi Wo Sumaseba, love. It handles love in an adult fashion, at its base form their is very little difference between the relationship of two young adults and that of two grown adults. The main difference is all the sexual baggage that we attach to said relationship. Mimi Wo Sumaseba shows us that even in young adulthood love is tumultuous, it provides you with great joy and great sorrow. One moment it elevates your being and the next it tears you down as if you are a pinata at a five year old’s birthday party.
The theme of love is summed up nicely when Shizuku is looking at the clock in Shiro’s shop. But, it also ties into the other major theme of Mimi Wo Sumaseba, that life is just as full of success as it is failure and you can only succeed and find your way in life if you try and ultimately fail. The Prince comes out eleven hours of the day to try and see his fair maiden, but he fails every time. He is persistent however, and by the twelfth time he succeeds and he has found love and happiness for that brief fleeting moment. Shizuku does the same with Seiji and with her attempts to be an author and her eventual decision to go to High School. Love and life go hand in hand, both contain successes and failures, but only by living can you experience either spectrum.
It’s always tragic when great talent is taken away from us by circumstances beyond their control. Kondo was considered by Hayao Miyazaki to be his personal successor at Studio Ghibli. In relative anonymity Kondo had displayed his wares in the art department on any number of Ghibli films. When finally given his chance to show off his talents to their fullest he smacked the animation world down with Mimi Wo Sumaseba. Sadly, the world doesn’t always go according to plan, and the successor to Miyazaki and Isao Takahata was struck dead shortly after the release of Mimi Wo Sumaseba by an aneurysm. I didn’t know Kondo personally so I will spare you any empty platitudes about his attributes as a man, but with one film he showed us an inkling of what he had in store for our little blue ball and it was a treasure to take in.