Meeting Someone I Admire
Yoshifumi Kondo x Aoi Hiiragi
Synopsis: Originally born as a manga, “Whisper of the Heart” has been given a new life through animation in this film. A discussion between the original author and the director, both of whom admire each other’s works, took place just before the movie’s completion.
Aiming for a Distinctly Different Girls’ Manga: Original Work “Whisper of the Heart”
Interviewer: Firstly, I would like to ask about how you both got started in your current careers.
Hiiragi: Ever since I was born, I loved drawing. From my kindergarten days, I would doodle, sketching manga-style characters. When I started reading manga in elementary school, I felt like a fish that found water, thinking, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” From then on, I dreamt of becoming a manga artist and started drawing.
Kondo: I was also a child who loved to draw. While I liked manga, I loved anime even more. In my hometown in Niigata, whenever Toei’s animated movies came out, I’d go watch them. I was deeply moved by Director Takahata’s “The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun,” and that’s when I decided to become an animator. After graduating high school, I moved to Tokyo and entered the world of animation. My first project was “Star of the Giants.”
Hiiragi: What? Your first project was “Star of the Giants?”
Kondo: Yes. After that, I had the opportunity to participate in some works by Takahata and Miyazaki. The first time I was allowed to handle character design as a main staff member was for Takahata’s “Anne of Green Gables.”
Hiiragi: I’ve always loved the “Anne” series and read it often. The characters in the anime were unique, and the voices were different from other animes, which I found fascinating.
Kondo: We struggled a lot with Takahata to create a fresh character design. As the original work was famous, it was challenging.
Hiiragi: It’s often like that with adaptations. Especially with “Anne of Green Gables.” Many people have their interpretations because they’re so attached to the story.
Kondo: I see.
Interviewer: Since we’re talking about the original works, can you tell us about the original story of “Whisper of the Heart?”
Hiiragi: “Whisper of the Heart” was my second serialized work. My first, “The Silhouette of Starry Eyes,” was a typical shoujo manga about mutual affection where the characters couldn’t confess their feelings and agonized internally, a pure love story.
Interviewer: It was a big hit, wasn’t it?
Hiiragi: Yes, thankfully. It became a long series, spanning ten volumes. As a reaction, perhaps, after finishing it, I thought my next work shouldn’t just be about romance. I wanted to explore a world with more dimensions, not just confined to love and hate. There are many other essential aspects of life beyond romance, and I wanted to portray deep human connections.
Kondo: I love this original work. It expresses emotions so candidly, and others genuinely accept those feelings. The relationships felt so fresh and invigorating. I thought if people could communicate like this, the world would change.
Hiiragi: Thank you very much.
Kondo: When Mr. Miyazaki mentioned turning this into a movie, he said something like, “Typical shoujo manga can’t be directly adapted into a movie. To make it into a movie, the continuity of time and space needs to be properly depicted. Also, the structure typical of shoujo manga, where almost everything is a representation of the protagonist’s emotional landscape and is portrayed subjectively, needs to change.” I understood what he meant when he said that, but based on what you’ve just said, the original work was already aiming to be different from the “typical shoujo manga”. Perhaps Mr. Miyazaki chose this work as the basis for the film because he was captivated by that aspect.
Interviewer: But wasn’t the original work unpopular?
Hiiragi: Yes, that’s right. Most shoujo manga are subjective, focusing primarily on feelings of “like” and “dislike”. That’s because readers prefer it that way. If you try to show these readers something different, they might not accept it.
Interviewer: It ended after just four chapters, right?
Hiiragi: Yes. When I began drawing, I intended it to be a long series and set up various story hints. However, I had to wrap it up midway and struggled a lot to tie up all the loose ends I had set up.
Kondo: Is there a specific meaning behind the title “Whisper of the Heart” (耳をすませば)?
Hiiragi: No, not really. Though, many shoujo manga titles are typically embarrassing to say out loud, I wanted something that wouldn’t be embarrassing, felt pleasant to the ear, and memorable. So from everyday phrases, I thought “Whisper of the Heart” might be suitable.
Interviewer: So the title didn’t influence the plot or story hints?
Hiiragi: While the phrase “Whisper of the Heart” has various meanings, I thought I could mold the story around it in some way.
Kondo: The name “Earth Shop” (地球屋) is nice too.
Hiiragi: I came up with that myself. The idea was a shop gathering goods from all over the world, and “Earth” came to mind. So, I attached “Shop” (屋) to it.
Kondo: In the original work, the parts about the “Earth Shop” and Baron really stand out. I was surprised to learn that you actually own such a figurine. Did you have a similar experience in your life?
Hiiragi: No. I just wanted to use a doll that I had bought with my own money in some way. It just so happened that it seemed fitting to include it while I was drawing “Whisper of the Heart”.
Kondo: So there’s no episode in your life that inspired it?
Hiiragi: None at all (laughs). If I had such episodes in my daily life, I think life would be much more fun (laughs).
Kondo: So there isn’t actually a shop like “Earth Shop” where you bought the Baron figurine?
Hiiragi: No. I made it all up in my mind.
Interviewer: I heard that there was a story about when you bought the Baron figurine.
Hiiragi: Where did you hear such a story? How embarrassing.
Kondo: It’s okay. Please tell us.
Hiiragi: When I first saw it in a shop, it was a bit pricey, so I left without buying it. But I kept thinking about it and a few weeks later, I decided to go back and buy it. But it had already been sold, so I gave up. It turns out the person who bought the figurine was my now-husband, and he gave it to me as a birthday present.
Kondo: That’s just like a story plot in reality.
Hiiragi: (laughs) But it’s about someone close to me, after all.
Kondo: So you were already married at that time…?
Hiiragi: No, it was the year before we got married. But that wasn’t the reason we got married. Mr. Kondo, don’t you have a story like that?
Kondo: Not really (with a bitter smile).
The original work portrayed “admiration,” while the movie drew inspiration from “reality.”
Kondo: Ms. Hiiragi, what did you think when you read Mr. Miyazaki’s storyboards?
Hiiragi: Well, the original work that I created couldn’t fully depict what I wanted to convey before it ended. So, it remained undigested within me. When I was allowed to read Mr. Miyazaki’s storyboards, I found that almost all the aspects that I felt were left undigested and what I wanted to convey in my original work were included. I felt as if this work finally found its proper conclusion. I was overjoyed that Mr. Miyazaki showcased the various issues that arise when people stand on their own and choose their career paths, suggesting that the way of a craftsman is one such path. It felt so like Mr. Miyazaki that I couldn’t help but feel happy about it. Furthermore, I was surprised that many parts remained true to the original work, as I had otherwise thought that the entire work would be more steeped in Mr. Miyazaki’s world.
Kondo: As I mentioned earlier, I adore your original work, Ms. Hiiragi. I had requested that as much of it be preserved as possible, and Mr. Miyazaki too wanted to retain the pure essence of the original work while giving it shape.
Interviewer: When you say you feared it would be steeped in Mr. Miyazaki’s world…
Hiiragi: I thought that the story would lean more towards the fantastical, moving away from the school setting, maybe focusing more on the characters from the Earth Shop or Seiji’s violin.
Kondo: So you mean the film depicted daily life more than you expected?
Hiiragi: Yes. I was surprised to see Yūko’s (Note: Shizuku’s friend) family situation so accurately portrayed.
Kondo: Personally, I wanted to depict the daily lives of middle school students as accurately as possible. I asked Mr. Miyazaki to do the same. But since Mr. Miyazaki tends to idealize characters, I think he struggled with this aspect.
Hiiragi: Still, thanks to that, the movie has a different feel from Mr. Miyazaki’s previous works, which I think is a good thing.
Interviewer: You mentioned that the movie gave shape to what was left incomplete in your original work. Conversely, do you think it’s possible to depict such content in a girls’ manga?
Hiiragi: When you consider it in detail, there are challenges. The difference between girls’ manga and movies is that, for instance, in the “Whisper of the Heart” I drew, it would be almost impossible to depict Yūko’s family in detail. There’s a limit to how many pages can be allocated, and I think the story would veer off course before even reaching such a point.
Kondo: In other words, including such details would make it difficult for the work to be well-formed?
Hiiragi: From a creator’s perspective, I want to depict every detail. I do think, though, readers are more interested in other things. For instance, in that scene, they would want to see the exchange of words between Shizuku and Yuko. To put it bluntly, they might not be interested in how Yuko lives her daily life. So, when I was shown the rushes, I was surprised at how meticulously Shizuku’s household was depicted. Especially the detail that Shizuku’s room was shared with his elder sister with a bunk bed setup. But, if this was portrayed in “Ribon” (a manga magazine), I think the readers would say, “I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that” (laughs). So, I drew houses thinking about what kind of homes the readers would want to live in.
Kondo: In this movie, we aimed to depict realistic everyday scenes rather than trendy drama-like settings. That’s why we deliberately included real-life details like telephone poles and outside landscapes. So, for shoujo manga, is there a stronger demand for elements of “yearning” over realism?
Hiiragi: At that age, I believe many strongly wish to have their own room. I don’t think anyone would willingly want to share a room with a sibling in a cramped apartment complex…
Kondo: Yet, that scene feels like it captures a typical Japanese family setting.
Hiiragi: Yes, that’s true. It gives the movie its persuasive power. It’s not about what’s better or worse.
Kondo: Another difference with shoujo manga is the depiction of romance, right? While I fundamentally viewed it as a love story, as Miyazaki’s storyboards progressed, there seemed to be a stronger emphasis on the message of “introspection and self-improvement.” Despite the tagline, “I’ve found someone I like,” I wonder if this can truly be termed a love story in the conventional shoujo manga sense. In your original work, rather than the two immersing in their own world, they are depicted as “standing side by side, looking far ahead.”
Hiiragi: I see. Even so, the last line from Seiji had quite the impact.
Kondo: That line was Miyazaki’s idea. He said it would be weak if Seiji simply told Shizuku, “I love you.” The line is more of a resolution, looking beyond that white haze and deciding to walk forward together. That’s why it works. Also, isn’t it said that young people nowadays have a somewhat superficial way of connecting? They don’t express their feelings directly. I’m guilty of that too (laughs). With that in mind, we decided to use the line “Will you marry me?” to encourage young people to express their feelings more openly.
Hiiragi: So, Mr. Kondo, you also can’t express your feelings well?
Kondo: Yes, that’s right. So when I look at the young people today, it’s frustrating as an older person. Mr. Miyazaki said it’s “The Revenge of the Middle-Aged” (laughs). Still, when I see the storyboards and dialogue written by Miyazaki, with actions like holding hands and waving, some of our staff felt it was rather embarrassing.
Hiiragi: (Laughs) If you think about it in terms of girls’ manga, that’s not embarrassing at all.
Interviewer: How about the characters?
Hiiragi: When I saw a close-up of Yūko’s profile, it wasn’t because of the braided hair, but I thought her expression looked like “Anne of Green Gables” (laughs).
Kondo: After seeing the original, Mr. Miyazaki and I decided that Yūko should be like Anne, thinking, “Surely Ms. Kondo must love ‘Anne of Green Gables'”.
Hiiragi: I didn’t know that. Also, in the music scene, when Seiji is playing the violin, his head moves with the instrument, and the way his hair sways reminds me of “Star of the Giants”…
Kondo: Is it revealing our age? (Laughs). But the animation for that movement was done by Mr. Koni, who was responsible for it.
Hiiragi: In the movie, the cat isn’t a black cat, right? The character Moon is unique as Moon, so I think it’s good, isn’t it?
Kondo: But when you think of cats, it’s always a black cat, right?
Hiiragi: (Laughs) As for the character Moon…
Kondo: I said, “Let’s stick to the original. We’ve shown a black cat once in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. When you think of cats, you think of black cats, right?” But Mr. Miyazaki said, “I don’t think so” (laughs). We had an internal popularity vote between a black cat and a fluffy character like Moon. I lost in that vote, and Miyazaki said, “See?” (laughs).
Hiiragi: (Laughs) So if the results of that poll had been reversed, would it have been a black cat?
Kondo: No, knowing Mr. Miyazaki, he would have come up with something else.
Interviewer: This time, Mr. Kondo, your role was to take the finished storyboards and be responsible for the animation and later stages. Being your directorial debut, and with many new tasks, wasn’t it tough?
Kondo: Mr. Miyazaki helped with music and casting, and I was blessed with a good team for all parts. The real challenge was new experiences like interviews and press conferences (laughs). The movement of characters, which I should be familiar with, was especially difficult. This time, compared to Mr. Miyazaki’s usual storyboards, there were many everyday scenes, and these are always difficult no matter how many times you do them.
Hiiragi: How do you feel about the response?
Kondo: It’s not finished yet, so it’s hard to say, but it seems like it’ll be a gentle-touching movie. I really hope many people will watch it. I’ve always been deeply interested in adolescents, so I’ve been wanting to make something like “My Neighbor Totoro” but without Totoro, focusing on a protagonist of that age. Adolescents today feel like a bundle of potential, yet they sometimes feel as though they’re the most unfortunate person in the world. Watching them, it feels like I’m seeing a reflection of adults. I wish we could somehow lighten their burdens. In this sense, being able to make “Whisper of the Heart” is truly a blessing.
Interviewer: Mr. Kondo, I heard you’re drawing a sequel to “Whisper of the Heart”?
Kondo: Yes. However, quite some time has passed since I drew the original, so I think continuing in the same vein might be challenging. I’m still contemplating the direction, but I’m thinking of depicting a dream world that Shizuku enters during his college entrance exam period.
Interviewer: Will it be released during the movie’s premiere?
Hiiragi: Yes. But I’m a bit worried because I might not be able to draw the characters anymore.
Kondo: What kind of work do you plan to draw after that?
Hiiragi: Currently, there isn’t anything specific I’m eager to draw. But in my daily life, while watching movies or reading books, I hope to be inspired and when I feel like “I want to draw this,” I’d love to give it form.
Kondo: I’m looking forward to your future works.
Hiiragi: Thank you. I’m looking forward to the completion of the movie.
Hiiragi Aoi – Born in 1962. From Tochigi Prefecture. Manga artist. – Became popular in the 1980s, especially in the girls’ manga magazine “Ribon”. Some of her notable works include “Silhouette of Starry Eyes” and “Silver Harmony”. Following this work, “The Cat Returns”, based on “The Baron: The Cat Returns”, was produced by Studio Ghibli and released in theaters in 2002.