By Suzuki Toshio
A Tattered “Ribon” Manga Found in a Mountain Lodge in Shinshu
Miyazaki’s father-in-law had a studio in Shinshu. Since long ago, the Miyazaki family would frequently visit there during summers. After starting Studio Ghibli, it became an annual custom for us to visit that mountain cabin during our summer vacations. Not only Miyazaki’s son, Goro, but also Mamoru Oshii and Hideaki Anno visited for some time. We would all have lively conversations and spent enjoyable times together.
The studio has now been renovated by Miyazaki into a log house, but it was originally an old Japanese-style house. Located slightly away from populated areas, there were no telephones or newspapers. It really was an environment isolated from the world.
During the day, we would stroll through the surrounding woods, take baths in the evening, and eat. As night fell, everything would become silent. There was really nothing to do. On one such occasion, Miyazaki wondered if there was anything interesting around and brought out several girls’ comic magazines he found rummaging through a room. It seemed his relatives would often come to play, and their nieces would buy these comics, reading them in rotation. Miyazaki occasionally skimmed through them.
From those, he handed one to me, saying, “Suzuki-san, try reading this.” It was “Whisper of the Heart” serialized in “Ribon.” I believe it was the second installment. Not just me, but also Oshii-san and Anno read it. Miyazaki pondered how the story began, and we all let our imaginations run wild discussing it. Naturally, we became curious about the subsequent developments. We created various storylines for fun. It seemed Miyazaki kept thinking about that story, as one day he asked the production team, “Does anyone know the manga ‘Whisper of the Heart’?” A staff member named Tanaka responded, “I have the book,” leading to Miyazaki’s request to bring it immediately.
Upon quickly finishing the book, Miyazaki exclaimed, “The story is different!” and became upset. It’s understandable. After all, the story in his mind was the one we had fabricated for fun (laughs).
Whether it’s manga or novels, that’s typically how Miyazaki reads. Instead of taking in the author’s intentions directly, he crafts a separate world within himself while reading, taking pleasure in exploring that world. Hence, when Miyazaki says, “Suzuki-san, this book is interesting,” and hands me one, the title often contains the word “garden.” He probably enjoys designing the gardens that appear in the books in his own unique way.
Before long, both Mr. Takahata and Mr. Miyazaki had also moved to A-Pro. It was at that time that Mr. Miyazaki took notice of Kondo’s talent. And in Mr. Miyazaki’s directorial debut, “Future Boy Conan”, Kondo played a significant role. Especially in comedic scenes, Kondo excelled, adding color and liveliness to the work.
Watching this, Mr. Takahata was also entranced by Kondo’s talent. When creating “Anne of Green Gables”, he decided to put Kondo at the core of the animation team.
Mr. Miyazaki felt a little peeved as if the talent he had discovered was being snatched away by Mr. Takahata (laughs). This led to the competition between “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Grave of the Fireflies” (*this story is recorded in “Ghibli’s Textbook 3: My Neighbor Totoro”).
Afterwards, Mr. Miyazaki always wanted to work with Kondo. However, as they alternated between making Takahata and Miyazaki movies, Kondo always ended up working on Takahata’s projects. I suspect that when Miyazaki suggested Kondo direct “Whisper of the Heart”, he was trying to break this pattern.
Kondo himself, having come from the countryside, had always worked hard under Takahata and Miyazaki. But he always harbored the desire to direct himself.
So, Miyazaki had an idea. He’d let Kondo take the reins as director to fully showcase his capabilities, but in return, Kondo would work as the animation director for Miyazaki’s next film. Indeed, when creating “Princess Mononoke”, Kondo became one of the animation directors. However, due to conditions like spontaneous pneumothorax, he started to experience health issues, leading to multiple hospitalizations.
Miyazaki’s Concept-Centered Approach and the Route of Quality Short Works
While the general framework was set, this would be Kondo’s directorial debut. It was known that he was excellent as an animator, but directing was a different skillset. The relationship between a director and an animation director in animation is akin to that between a director and a cinematographer in live-action. A great cinematographer isn’t necessarily a great director. Miyazaki could do both, but what about Kondo?
Miyazaki’s solution was to prepare the project on the production side and hand it over to the director.
Until then, Studio Ghibli had relied entirely on the creativity of directors Takahata and Miyazaki, a sort of “director-centric” approach. In contrast, now the scenario and storyboard would be crafted by Miyazaki as the production producer, and then Kondo would direct the film, a “concept-centered” approach.
Miyazaki, skilled in crafting frameworks and catchphrases, also suggested creating not an “epic” but a “quality short work”. Studio Ghibli had always created grand films with massive budgets and time. With continuous grueling work, the studio was exhausted. Miyazaki believed it was time to shift to smaller projects and rejuvenate.
With this in mind, Miyazaki proposed two specific plans. One was to change the size of the storyboards. Ghibli’s storyboards were high-quality, usable for layouts directly, and were larger than those of other animation studios. Miyazaki proposed shifting to smaller, TV-sized storyboards. This would prevent detailed drawing, making final animation easier, reflecting a business mindset.
The other was a change in distribution. “For a smaller work, the screening should match its scale.” Previously, films were distributed through Toho, focusing on major theaters nationwide. Miyazaki considered switching to a mini-theater distribution, emphasizing content quality. Realizing this level of thoughtfulness, I was once again impressed by Miyazaki.
Now, with Hayao Miyazaki’s command, the production began with a new approach. Yet, the first person to break this new approach was also Miyazaki himself (laughs).
When he started drawing the storyboards, it was fine. Even so, it had been a long time since Miyazaki had drawn for the small frames used in television. Consequently, he found it challenging to draw in them. Despite this, he might have managed to draw until around the B-part. But after that, he claimed he couldn’t draw in such small frames and returned to his style of drawing detailed pictures in larger frames.
On the other hand, I was exploring the new distribution method.
At that time, there was a company named Herald Ace (now Asmik Ace), which distributed smaller, yet quality films for mini-theaters. I had a connection with them through the magazine “Animage”. I decided to approach them, and Masato Hara, the founder and producer, met with me.
When I explained the content of the project and that we wanted to distribute it as a “quality small piece”, Hara understood. He did, however, mentioned one concern.
“Suzuki, I understand what you’re saying. But behind Studio Ghibli stands Yasuyoshi Tokuma. We can’t just act independently. How about co-distribution with Tokuma’s Daiei Motion Picture company and our company?”
Though Hara suggested this, I honestly felt that such a half-hearted approach wouldn’t work well.
Looking at the production side, things were, as usual, running behind schedule (bitter laugh). This was because what was supposed to be a small piece was gradually becoming a larger work.
Watching the completed rushes, I felt torn. There seemed to be various challenges with the mini-theater distribution, and the film was becoming more and more of a major work. I wondered if we should ask Toho for help. But if we ask them now, will it be done in time…?
Regardless, I decided to have an honest discussion with Mr. Hideyuki Takai, who was then the head of coordination at Toho. He later became the president of Toho and now serves as a consultant.
When I met with Mr. Takai, as expected, the summer schedule for 1995 was already fixed, and he said, “It’s impossible to squeeze in now.” But I felt that I had no choice but to push forward.
“Can’t you somehow fit it into the summer schedule, Mr. Takai?”
“You know that the movie theaters are already booked up, don’t you, Suzuki?”
“How about Golden Week? We can run until just before the summer with that.”
“No, the production won’t be ready in time if we go with that.”
“Well, what about winter? We can reserve theaters now for winter.”
“If we delay until winter, production costs will skyrocket. I’d like to avoid that. We really want to release it in the summer.”
“There’s also the option of September. A Ghibli film is essentially a mainstream film. It would be fine to release it in September.”
Mr. Takai suggested this, but I was adamant about a summer release. Audience attendance during Golden Week or autumn is about half compared to the summer.
As we met and discussed multiple times, Mr. Takai started expressing his true feelings. “It’s a love story between middle schoolers. It’s challenging to fit that into the summer.”
It’s indeed a common industry perspective. A love story between a middle school boy and girl has a limited audience. For a movie to be released in the summer, when blockbusters are abundant, major distributors would hesitate. To appeal to adults, the conventional approach is to age up the characters or turn it into an action-adventure story. I understood this. But even with that in mind, I desperately wanted a summer release. After persistently pushing, in the end, Mr. Takai finally gave in.
“Fine, let’s do it in the summer. But the lineup will be tough. We can’t secure all the best theaters like usual. That might reflect in the box office returns. Are you okay with that?”
“At this point, there’s no other way. Given our initial intentions when starting production, this might be the fate of this film. Please, let’s go with that.”
But when it was all said and done, more audience members came than expected, and it was a massive hit, the top Japanese film. All the persistence paid off, and I’m deeply grateful to Mr. Takai for accepting our request.
The Differences Between Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshifumi Kondo as Reflected in the Character of Shizuku
While I was busy addressing distribution issues, the animation work was in full swing.
With the script determining the flow of the story and storyboards outlining the basic direction, one might wonder: “What did Yoshifumi Kondo do as the director?” It’s definitive that “Kon-chan” (nickname for Kondo) made the characters act differently from Miyazaki’s style, truly crafting his own film.
I’d like to mention two symbolic scenes.
Firstly, there’s a scene where Shizuku visits the staff room and discovers from a library card that the Seiji Amasawa she had been curious about was her classmate. In Miyazaki’s storyboards, a startled Shizuku quickly runs down the stairs with her friends. However, in Kondo’s direction, instead of running, she walks down slowly.
This clearly highlights the difference between the two directors. In Miyazaki’s version, the girl’s body reacts before her mind, but Kondo’s portrayal is of a child who internalizes her shock and then acts.
The second scene is when a dejected Shizuku visits a shop named “Earth Shop”. Seeing the shop closed, she leans against the wall, sits down, and speaks to a cat. In this scene, there’s no one around. Yet, Kondo’s Shizuku ensures her skirt stays in place to avoid revealing her underwear, while Miyazaki’s Shizuku sits without a care, unintentionally showing it.
Kondo’s Shizuku always seems conscious of how she appears, and this portrayal makes certain scenes feel a bit awkward. It’s a stark contrast, and Miyazaki was upset seeing this. If it was as per Miyazaki’s storyboards, Shizuku would’ve been a cheerful girl. But Kondo’s Shizuku feels sophisticated and contemporary, which undoubtedly adds charm to the film.
Contrary to what one might assume, while Miyazaki portrays an ideal child, it’s Kondo who seems to have observed modern middle-school girls closely.
There’s a scene where Shizuku discusses the lyrics of “Country Road” with her chorus club friends during lunch. Miyazaki’s storyboard specified a faster conversation, but Kondo made them speak at almost half that pace. Before drawing the storyboard, Miyazaki had observed middle-school girls chatting on a train and designed the scene based on that. So, in this respect, Miyazaki’s portrayal is more realistic.
Even with the same storyboard, changing directors can significantly alter the expression of scenes.
On the flip side, Miyazaki, having created the storyboard, often wanted to get involved in the direction. A clear instance is the scene from the story Shizuku wrote in the movie, “The Tale Given by Baron”. Miyazaki stated, “Production is behind schedule; I’ll help” and decided to direct just that scene. In reality, he just wanted to do it himself (laughs).
Miyazaki showed the art staff a collection of illustrations called “Ibarado” by Naohisa Inoue for reference. While he wanted the team to emulate these drawings, I felt it was better to approach things differently.
“Why not ask Mr. Inoue to draw it himself, Miyazaki-san?”
Miyazaki seemed surprised by this idea. Naohisa Inoue lived in Ibaraki city, Osaka. When I explained the situation, he agreed to come to Tokyo. Thanks to that, we got a fantastical backdrop unlike any in previous Ghibli films.
Furthermore, having an external party like Mr. Inoue join brought balance and peace between Miyazaki and Kondo, allowing them to focus on their work.
Controversy Surrounding the Lyrics of “Country Road”
Nonetheless, having two directors on a single project does inevitably lead to disagreements. This can’t be helped. Not only in the film but there was also a clash regarding the Japanese translation of the lyrics for “Country Road”.
Miyazaki had decided from the beginning to make “Country Road” the theme song of this work, emphasizing the importance of its Japanese translation. Initially, he planned to write the translation himself, but he was too busy with the storyboards. Moreover, the scene where Shizuku sings “Country Road” in the Earth Shop is a prescore. The lyrics were urgently needed before recording the song. Pushed to the limit, Miyazaki came up with an unexpected idea.
“Got it! Let’s have Suzuki’s daughter do it!”
I was stunned. I was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” But with no time left, there was no other option. I went home and asked my daughter.
“Do you want to give it a try, given the circumstances?”
I think she was nineteen at the time, at the height of her rebellious phase.
“How much is the pay? When’s the deadline?” she responded, sounding just like a pro (bitter laugh).
I never dreamed I’d have to negotiate a contract with my own daughter, but anyway, she agreed to write it. I felt bad for her, but I also thought, “Even if it’s terrible, showing something completed might motivate Mr. Miyazaki to write it himself.”
Come the deadline day, my delinquent daughter hadn’t returned. She finally came home late at night. I told her, “Today is the deadline. Do you understand?” She replied, “I’ll start now,” and brought out a dictionary. But to my surprise, she wrote the lyrics in about five minutes without even opening it. And Mr. Miyazaki liked those lyrics. He said, “Good!” and made a few minor changes to complete them.
However, there was an argument between Miyazaki and Kondo about the changes.
The original lyrics my daughter wrote were, “Living alone/ Leaving the city without anything.” Miyazaki changed it to, “Being all alone/ Without fear/ Dreaming of living.”
Originally, John Denver’s song was about “going back to that nostalgic hometown.” My daughter changed it to a narrative about someone who ran away from home and can’t return even if they want to. Miyazaki appreciated it, but it was too explicit. So, he slightly blurred the element of running away.
Mr. Kondo insisted that the original lyrics were better. This sparked an intense debate, which almost turned into a shouting match. In the end, Kondo gave in, and they settled on Miyazaki’s version.
I wondered, why did the usually reticent Kondo fight so passionately over those lyrics? It was a mystery to me.
The puzzle was solved after the movie was completed.
During a national campaign in Sendai, I had a chance to dine with Kondo. He softly said, “I still think the original lyrics are better.”
“I ran away to Tokyo to become a manga artist. I truly had nothing…”
He was in tears. By chance, the lyrics my daughter wrote mirrored the life of Mr. Kondo. He practically ran away to Tokyo, determined to become an animator. He wanted to go back home but couldn’t. He probably felt that becoming a director was the only way to truly go back to his hometown with pride. Those lyrics, unexpectedly found in his directorial debut, must have meant a lot to him. That’s why he didn’t want them changed.
Though he was a man of few words, who seldom revealed his inner thoughts, he must have had a fiery passion inside. That night’s conversation deeply touched my heart.
Can anyone other than Hayao Miyazaki create a “Miyazaki Anime”?
Was “Whisper of the Heart” a work of Hayao Miyazaki or Yoshifumi Kondō? I can’t really tell. It’s true that the two confronted each other in various ways. During the campaign’s press conference, after Kondo answered a reporter’s question, Miyazaki commented, “That’s not right. The director doesn’t understand anything,” creating a tense moment.
Nevertheless, at the wrap-up party, Kondō bowed his head to Miyazaki and said, “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
Indeed, being a new director, there were parts that Kondō didn’t understand regarding the script and the storyboard. However, he overcame it with a kind of purity. To put it bluntly, even if he didn’t understand a scene, he instinctively knew how to portray it. Thanks to Kondō being the director, the character Shizuku became a captivating figure. I think the success of this work is largely due to what Kondō portrayed. Therefore, it was indeed good that Kondō handled “Whisper of the Heart.”
This film is both a work of Director Yoshifumi Kondō and a “Miyazaki Anime.” When Kondō directed using Miyazaki’s storyboard, it became evident that another “Miyazaki Anime” could be produced. I struggled a lot with whether this was a good or bad thing.
Even so, as Studio Ghibli, we continued the attempt to create “another Miyazaki Anime” with Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” and Director Gorō Miyazaki’s “From Up on Poppy Hill”. Though, drawing from the experience of “Whisper of the Heart,” we decided to provide only the script on the production side and had each director create their own storyboards. The success of “Arrietty” and “Poppy Hill” was also thanks to Kondō.
Sadly, the only directorial work of Yoshifumi Kondō was “Whisper of the Heart”. After “Princess Mononoke” was released, Kondō fell ill with a dissecting aortic aneurysm at the end of 1997 and passed away in January of the following year. He was only 47. It was a departure too soon.