Mimi wo Sumaseba begins with a song. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” bustles by as the camera pans over traffic and worn homes, capturing routine activities in the western Tokyo surburbs. The film regards 20th century adolescence, but it is also more encompassing than that; it depicts life in all its mediocrity, treasuring the banal acts that come to define us.
The details in the incidental may be what first distinguishes Mimi wo Sumaseba, but there are also surprising corners it takes to cover new ground. Just as in the classic shoujo plot, junior high schooler Shizuku and her friend Yuko experience chaste romance for the first time. However, the film also confronts craftsmanship and the dream to create something truly wonderful. Indeed, there is even something breathing life in every shot: the everyday commute, the trip for milk to the groceries, the aged history behind antiques, the trivial conversations with family members.
The film is gorgeous, which is perhaps an unsurprising achievement given the studio. Cinematography, lighting, artwork, color palette—every craft feels worn and soulful. What may be surprising is that it is directed by neither of the main duo (Miyazaki and Takahata) but by Yoshifumi Kondo, whose only previous experience has been in animation and character design.
Mimi wo Sumaseba is essentially Kondo’s one masterpiece. It was released as his directorial debut while with the expectation that he was to be Studio Ghibli’s successor, only to pass away three years later. The film is loosely adapted from a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, a coarse story with the fundamental concepts but roughly executed. Kondo took the work and effectively polished it to be the final product that it is now. The characters are less shoujo caricatures, Seiji is now a violin maker instead of a painter, and the overall story better comprehemends the pursuit of the artist and removes the complications in the manga’s romance. This, as well as the elegant production that Kondo accomplishes, grants the film its own identity.
Love is a difficult emotion to express well, yet Mimi wo Sumaseba delivers head-and-shoulders above all else. While Shizuku does not willingly look for romance, hanging out with her friends and several boys makes her well aware of it. This slowly grows into an idealization of a dreamy, refined Seiji Amazawa, in fashion to the fairy tales she’s disposed to reading. In true and true shoujo form, it backfires in the cutest ways. Being teased by the real Seiji for eating a “big lunch”, and seeing Shizuku’s irritated look, simply feels genuine. The entirety of their actions around each other is strikingly accurate, given off by the charm of the mood and their subdued mannerisms. The voice acting is almost too cute. It’s also amusing simply to watch the reactions etched on Shizuku’s face.
The flow of the story is as seamless as it can be. It’s lackadaiscal, but tightly wound up enough to hold a definitive structure. The various threads of the story all converge just about one-third of the way in, now focusing on Shizuku’s entrance into a new world as she finds herself in a small antique shop, and bumping into Seiji along the way. Moon, the fat and possibly sentient cat, is one of many elements of magical realism in the film—also a handy assistant to lead the story to wherever it need be. The Baron as well is almost his own character, with large lustered eyes and livening up a room by purely existing. It’s a wonderful blend of untold depth and etherealness that brings Mimi wo Sumaseba onto a higher plane; we can experience a unparalleled degree of affection that is virtually impossible to realize otherwise.
Music has a large presence in the story, oftentimes serving as a driving force to accentuate the reccurent themes. Just as the opening song comes and goes, Shizuku directly references the hit, concoting her own version “Concrete Roads” simply for the fun. Who would expect it to spark Seiji and Shizuku’s first playful fight, only to then becoming a running occurrence? There is also the heartfelt scene placed stark in the center of the film—Seiji playing the violin, Shizuku singing the lyrics, and three
wise old men dawdling in to compose an ad hoc performance. The singing is occasionally flat, and the ensemble is rough and choppy, but this is what makes it so charming. There is so much emotion dug into Shizuku’s voice acting and the instruments, that the scene in its entirety feels almost otherworldly.
Indecision with the future happens to everyone, and Shizuku eventually seeks to find a dream that she can pursue. This sudden motivation is brought on by love of course, but it doesn’t stifle the lone idea from carrying emotion for every viewer. Her later struggles in writing a story is summed up accurately by the old shopkeeper: Shizuku is but a rough unpolished stone. As with adolescence in general, the greatest potential lies there in waiting, and she must take her time in order to reach it. (This analogy almost reminds me of a trivia comparison—Hiiragi’s manga as the stone, and Kondo’s film as the uncovered gem.)
Mimi wo Sumaseba captures life in its rough and tumbling form. There is no artificiality present throughout the film, nor any contrived preparation to weaken the impact of Shizuku and Seiji’s resolve. The result leaves viewers spellbound. Whether it be the artisanry, the romance, the fantasy, or simply the pursuit toward a dream, there is something in Mimi wo Sumaseba for everybody to learn and cherish.