Sunday, April 25, 2010

Whisper of the Heart

It took quite a long time for a dub for Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo's first and only film for Studio Ghibli) to be produced, but the results are worthwhile.  It is a delightful, well-produced English track, just like any of the Ghibli-Disney dubs.  Other reviewers such as AnimeonDVD's Chris Beveridge and Dani Moure have praised it as one of their best. That said, Whisper of the Heart's dub has also received its share of detractors; there are those who simply refuse to give this dub any credit, in the form of either stubborn, unpleasable fans who are too fond of the original Japanese or even a few reviewers who simply have an axe to grind (e.g. Film Freak Central's own Walter Chaw, who dismissed the dub as "sub-par" compared to Disney standards and the owner of The Ghibli Blog called it "one of the worst Disney dubs yet", adding that the actors "sound like parents talking down to a baby or stroke victims" -- then again, said critic disliked all the Ghibli dubs save Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, and Totoro). However, if one doesn't watch any of the Ghibli dubs with any said baggage on their shoulders, it is much easier to appreciate them as a whole. That certainly applies to Whisper of the Heart, which, to the average ear, is a very natural-sounding, well-written, and top-quality English track. I wouldn't say it's the best Ghibli dub (I love the others too much), but it is definitely an effort that does not deserve to be tossed aside as second-rate.

Produced by the now-expected team of ADR director Rick Dempsey and scriptwriters Cindy Davis and Donald H. Hewitt (who helmed the Ghibli dubs since Spirited Away), Whisper of the Heart is not an easy movie to translate, and if done straightly, it could make the mistake of alienating the audience.  A crucial part of the story involves an American song, "Take Me Home, Country Road" by John Denver (delivered in the opening credits by Olivia Newton-John), where the protagonist attempts to translate the song into Japanese.  Obviously that wouldn't work, so the scriptwriters have her rewrite the lyrics to suit her own tastes.  This is not the only example of pragmatic changes that occur in the script.  Other ones include a tongue-in-cheek comment about the parody writing of "Concrete Road", "Great lyrics. They're even cornier than the original version!" (vs. "You should give up on 'Concrete Road'"), and lastly a marriage proposal at the end.  (Considering that the two have only met for a few days, hearing them agree to a marriage does feel somewhat abrupt. If anything, this could be counted as an improvement over the original script.)  The dialogue is not word-for-word with the literal translation, but it somehow succeeds in maintaining the spirit of the original without compromising it.  This is the sort of standard I've come to expect from any Ghibli-Disney dub, and this is no exception.

The casting for this story is important because Whisper is a story about High school teenagers; thankfully, Disney puts together a capable cast for the characters in question with performances that bring sincerity and believability to this slow-paced love story. (And contrary to the aforementioned poster, they are not "syrupy, overdone" or "cartoonish" in the least.)

SHIZUKU (Brittany Snow): For the lead character, an insecure teenager with a passion for stories and an obliviousness to certain responsibilites (a weakness which is magnified in the latter half), Miss Snow handles herself excellently. She has a very lovely voice, conveying the character's innocence and childlike wonder; every emotional moment is handled in a way that is lively and believeability without sounding saccharine. Brittany even gets to show off her singing abilities for the film's solo vocal piece ("Country Road"). There are several moments where she has to speak fast to keep up with the mouth movements, but that's more of a criticism of the animation lip flaps than her overall performance. (This wouldn't be her only voice acting job, either; some time after, she was heard as the lonely sorceress Namine in Kingdom Hearts II.)

SEIJI (David Gallagher): Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, Riku himself speaks for the boy whose name Shizuku notices in the library cards on the books she regularly checks out. When we first meet Seiji he comes across as anything but the "nice, intelligent, civilized person" that Shizuku imagines him to be; in fact he "comments" on her work and her father's lunch. But that's only one side of his personality, we discover, as he shows himself to also be a kind, genial boy who has a lot more in common with Shizuku than even she imagines. Gallagher handles these earlier moments in a way that is very cocky and amusing. His scenes with Snow are the core of the entire story, and it helps that there is chemistry between the two throughout the dub. It's hard to believe that neither recorded their lines together. (It also seems that Disney just can't escape criticism, either, when it comes to casting leads; I've heard naysayers say that both Snow and Gallagher are wrong for their roles. It seems there is no pleasing everybody.)

YOKO (Ashley Tisdale): Shizuku's best friend is also Brittany Snow's real life best friend, as mentioned in the behind-the-scenes documentary. I like casting choices like this, as it brings an added authenticity and naturalism to the relationship between the two girls. Tisdale has a more nasally voice which lends well to her bits of irritation and her timid moments. She also does a great job with her emotional breakdown scene. Interesting note: Tisdale was familiar with the song "Country Road", unlike Snow, and so she had to teach Brittany the song; this works in favor of the first scene where the two girls sing Shizuku's initial lyrics.

SHIHO (Courtney Thorne-Smith): The older sister of Shizuku is a cantankerous character, always in a foul mood, and sometimes at odds with her sibling. It is easy to portray this girl as an annoying bitch, but Courtney somehow steers around that trap, making Shiho appropriately grumpy but also concerned and caring for Shizuku, especially when the latter neglects her house chores (and exam scores!) in favor of writing a story.

SHIZUKU'S MOTHER AND FATHER (Jean Smart and James Seking): Nothing much to write about their performances here, other than that they play Shizuku's parents pretty much as you'd expect--stern, caring, and warm at heart. Seking has a few moments which come across as somewhat monotonous, but not enough to bring down the character or the scenes he is in.

SUGIMURA (Martin Spanjers): The other significant "child" character in the movie is Shizuku and Yuko's classmate, or to put it mildly, an oblivious but goodhearted dope who has no idea that Yuko is in love with him. What really makes his character work is the dialogue; Martin's delivery of "I don't speak girl-code! Why don't you spell it out for me?" is pricelessly funny. He also has the right tone for this kind of character. Considering that this is a modern-day "realistic" story, it helps that the children all sound authentic (no offense to any of the other Ghibli dubs, of course).

BARON (Cary Elwes): I've always found it amusing that several veterans from The Princess Bride have somehow found their way into Ghibli dubs (Inigo Montoya in Laputa, Miracle Max in Howl, and Prince Humperdinck in Nausicaa), but Westley is lucky. This is his third appearance in a Ghibli film, the first being Donald Curtis in Porco Rosso. His second role is the character he plays in this film, a charismatic gentleman cat named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, or simply Baron. His performance was the highest point of the otherwise predictable and uninspired The Cat Returns (the only Ghibli film to have disappointed me thus far). Compared to that film, however, Baron’s role is smaller, and so Elwes has few lines, but even so, the third time is a charm.

NISHI (Harold Gould): This guy takes my vote for being the best performer in the overall dub. It always seems to be a tradition for every Ghibli dub to have a performer who takes the status of "stealing the show", so to speak (save Pom Poko); Gould's portrayal of the kindly old shopkeeper who helps Shizuku on her spiritual growth into a young woman is no exception. Gould has the sort of gentle, grandfatherly voice that one would naturally expect from this character, and his natural delivery throughout really makes the viewer wish that Mr. Nishi was the sort of kindly uncle everyone wishes they had. In other words, Mr. Gould really contributes to the movie's overall "heart". Only issue: occasional distortion in the clarity of the voice, yet it is a nuisance that gradually goes away.

Anyone who has viewed a Disney-Ghibli dub should not expect anything less for the additional characters, and there's no disappointments to be had here. The high school students, in particular, sound great, not only for being age-appropriate, but for the handling of the walla scenes. This is especially amusing in the scene where the students tease Shizuku about her relationship with Seiji.

It is a wonder, too, that Whisper of the Heart ever got dubbed at all; at the time Disney acquired the rights to these movies, one would wonder about how they would handle a Japanese-centric film like this. There was even a legality issue that delayed its release (involving the use of the John Denver song). In the end, however, it is worth it, because the resulting dub is yet another commendable achievement in the high-profile Disney-Ghibli English tracks. While Whisper is not my favorite Ghibli-Disney dub, I will not deny that it is indeed a top-notch effort; nor do I hesitate to recommend it in the least. It is certainly deserving of an appreciative audience.

Monday, April 19, 2010

R.I.P. Carl Macek

Reported on Anime News Network:

Animation historian Jerry Beck reported on his blog on Sunday that American producer Carl Macek passed away due to a heart attack on Saturday. Macek and Beck had co-founded the anime importing company Streamline Pictures in 1988.

Macek is best known for producing Robotech, the 1985 redubbed and edited adaptation of three different anime series — Macross, Southern Cross, and Mospeada. He also worked on the dubbing of many anime projects from Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years (redubbed and edited adaptation of Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia) to more recently, Bleach and Naruto. His other dubbing production credits include Vampire Hunter D, Robot Carnival, My Neighbor Totoro, and Aura Battler Dunbine. Although Streamline Pictures did not dub the 1988 film Akira, it did release the film in theaters and on video tape in the United States.
Outside anime, Macek wrote The Art of Heavy Metal (Animation for the Eighties), the 1981 book about the Canadian animated film Heavy Metal. That led to his co-writing credit on the Heavy Metal 2000 spinoff. He also developed the Lady Death film at ADV Films and wrote War Eagles, a novel based on an unproduced film treatment by Merian C. Cooper.


My comments:
As controversial as the subject of dubbing for Anime is, it is nonetheless disheartening when we lose anyone who made a significant impact on the market of today.  While I have mixed opinions about his work (some dubs of his I like, others not so much), Macek was still pretty much undeserving of the backlash he received from many detractors.  Controversial though his translation decisions may have been, they nonethless have opened up a gate for Anime; we wouldn't be watching Anime in English.  More importantly, people unfamiliar with Anime may not have become introduced to these works if it weren't for him.

My condolences to Mr. Macek's family.