Songs of (Un)belonging: ‘Whisper of the Heart’ and ‘Chungking Express’

Studio Ghibli

Music has always played a critical role in film, serving as an emotional and aesthetic heartbeat pulsing alongside and supporting its narrative core. One of the first things that come to mind when we think of a film we love might be its stirring orchestral score, its zany soundtrack, or evocative sonic symbols. A particularly interesting – and possibly under-appreciated – function of music is its depiction of both place and how characters feel about a place. We cannot appreciate the malaise of colonial Calcutta in India Song without the desultory eponymous melody recurring throughout. Neither can we divorce the images of the callous massacre of a Vietnamese village in Apocalypse Now from the fascistic connotations of Wagner’s accompanying “Ride of the Valkyries”. Whisper of the Heart and Chungking Express – released just a year apart – might seem totally dissimilar, but share a distinctive commonality in their central female characters’ respective attachments to a particular diegetic song, used to tell us about how they relate to their wider urban environment.

Whisper of the Heart comprises, along with Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, and From Up on Poppy Hill, the small yet profound coming-of-age realism subgenre in the Studio Ghibli canon. Its protagonist, the good-natured and ambitious fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Shizuku Tsukishima (Yōko Honna), dreams of becoming a writer as she spends her days obsessively checking out library books and growing up in Tokyo. Negotiating the turbulent obstacles of crushes, friendships, and her relationship with her parents and her sister, Shizuku learns to utilise her unpolished writing skill and vivid imagination to produce a short story. The city she lives in is vividly realised in the film, a character in itself. We follow Shizuku’s school run, her walks home with her best friend Yūko (Maiko Kayama), her pursuit of a mysterious cat on a train through suburban roads, and her perusing books in the city library. The geography of Shizuku’s small family apartment is particularly distinct, where tiny, narratively “unnecessary” plot details allow us to linger a little longer. In an early scene, Shizuku is directed to the kitchen to clear away breakfast and put on the laundry. In another, Shizuku’s mother rushes back home to collect her purse while Shizuku brushes her teeth. Testifying to the domestic relatability of the film, Shizuku’s desk has become widely recognised thanks to ChilledCow’s “lofi hip hop radio” YouTube Channel.

Studio Ghibli

Shizuku’s first creative effort is a Japanese translation of John Denver’s country song “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Denver’s narrator wistfully refers to specific locations, making it at once personal and emotive: “Almost heaven, West Virginia / Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” Translation represents a major challenge: to do the mood of the song justice, she must adapt the lyrics to Tokyo, supplanting the voice of the original narrator with her own gloss. One of her early drafts approaches the task ironically with a parodic take on the urbanisation of her city, titled “Concrete Roads”. Shizuku becomes embarrassed and angry when aspiring artisan Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi), her classmate and eventual love interest, finds her lyrics and genially mocks them. Although he later insists that he liked her satire, Shizuku is spurred on to improve her translation.

Seiji comes to represent more than a crush: she sees in him a reflection of herself, albeit a more accomplished version, who will slip away by virtue of his talent. The motivation Seiji inspires is equal parts of awe and envy, which are depicted in the film with an astonishing warmth and candour. The moment that binds their relationship – and her confidence as a writer – is when Shizuku shyly agrees to sing her lyrics while Seiji plays a violin accompaniment. While it is a stepping stone onto a potential professional path, Shizuku’s translation comes in tandem with, and is produced out of, the advent of her first love and her growing emotional maturity. Her ‘coming-of-age’ is enacted literally and collaboratively in her creative process, reading out and performing drafts to Yūko or Nishi, undertaken for her school choir, rooted in the articulation of her relationship to home.

Studio Ghibli

In Wong Kar-wai’s meditative Chungking Express, a film soaked in cloudy neon and transgressing the crime, comedy, drama, and romance genres, Faye (Faye Wong) falls in unrequited love with a cop (Tony Leung) who yearns for an airline hostess ex-girlfriend. While the ghost of the airline attendant haunts their nebulous relationship, Faye begins breaking into Cop 663’s apartment, redecorating and refilling the fish tank. When he notices these loving home invasions and begins to return Faye’s feelings, she adopts the occupation of his ex-girlfriend and leaves Hong Kong, leaving 663 with a mocked-up plane ticket dated a year in the future. She finds on her return that 663 has reciprocated her covert redecorations by buying her former workplace, and is transforming it into a restaurant. She writes him another plane ticket on a napkin: this time, he requests its destination is wherever she will take him.

The film’s title amalgamates real-life locations Chungking Mansions and the Midnight Express, immediately conveying a preoccupation with the urban environment. Unlike the realistic delineation of the animated city of Whisper, Chungking Express is highly stylised, at times constituting a sensory attack with its time-lapses, slowed shot speed, handheld camera, and asynchronous sound. These elements emphasise the alienation and anonymity of the city. In the opening chase sequence Cop 223 ponders in a surreal voiceover on brushing near the blonde woman: “This was the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimetre between us.” Like Whisper, Chungking Express knows where to let us drink in the urban setting, like a leisurely shot of 663 painstakingly drying his rain-soaked boarding pass from Faye.

Jet Tone Production

It is “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas that signifies Faye’s environmental dislocation. The narrator of the song expresses melancholy, autumnal longing for the “safe[ty]” and “warm[th]” of Los Angeles while “all the leaves are brown / and the sky is grey.” While Denver conveys an uncomplicated love for his home – a love comfortably embodied by Shizuku – this song is lyrically more ambiguous, and its significance to the correlatively more complex Faye defies any easy interpretation. It’s uncertain if this dreamed California is a real place or the spatial visualisation of discontentment. The film also toys with this idea: Faye and 663 seem to go to different restaurants named the California, missing each other, when they arrange a date. While Shizuku actively interrogates and re-appropriates the mood and lyrics to “Take Me Home”, Faye is passively unwilling or unable to decipher her bond with “California Dreamin’”. When 663 asks her why she plays it so loudly, she answers, “It helps me not to think.” Yet we know there must be some deeper layer of meaning that attracts her – the “winter’s day” the song refers to ironically finds no analogue in the warm and humid climate of Hong Kong. The kind of mutual dissatisfaction Faye envisions between the song’s narrator and herself rests on an existential rather than empirical logic.

The songs in Whisper and Chungking Express underline antithetical narratives of belonging and unbelonging. However, as American songs, they similarly signpost Western influence on the film and popular culture of Japan and Hong Kong.

Jet Tone Production

From English dubs provided by Hollywood prestige to adaptations of European literature, Studio Ghibli has always been globalised, deriving liberally from the West even as a bastion of Japanese national identity. The globalised world manifests in minor ways throughout Whisper: Seiji embarks on his apprenticeship in Cremona, Italy, and Nishi’s love story occurs in pre-war Germany. While Whisper lacks the obvious borrowings of a grand high fantasy story of Tales from Earthsea or the European-flavoured locales of Howl’s Moving Castle or Kiki’s Delivery Service, the significance of “Take Me Home” subtly represents this global cultural exchange, with Shizuku using the scaffolding of an American song to represent her own national and personal identity. Her reworking of the lyrics almost reads as a playful subversion of Hollywood’s practice of modelling Westerns on Akira Kurosawa films.

In Chungking Express, the role of the West is far more central to the narrative, and as a result “California Dreamin’’ is more prominently played. While the Tokyo of Whisper is lovingly animated at the beginning of the film with aerial views of the city at night, accompanied by the English-language “Take Me Home”, Hong Kong is depicted by Wong as something indistinct, hazy, even threatening, in its absorption of Western culture. In the first story, Wong conspicuously utilises the jump cuts and freeze frames of the French New Wave, and the mysterious, unnamed blonde-wigged woman seems like she might have emerged from a Melville film. The ceaseless neon light of Western fast-food companies saturates the frame, and the influence of consumerism on human relationships is reflected through Cop 223’s (Takeshi Kaneshiro) purchasing of pineapples and Cop 663’s monologuing to inanimate domestic objects to nurse their broken hearts. The film is also haunted by images and discussions of expiry and obsolescence, alluding to the wider context of the impending termination of Britain’s colonial rule and the territory’s return to China. It’s interesting that the key thread linking the two otherwise unconnected stories of Chungking Express is that the two male characters are police officers, upholding a British-derived constitution of law and order that may well become antiquated with the expiration of the colony.

Jet Tone Production

It is appropriate, then, that the plane tickets are written on napkins, substituting the consumerist instinct for romantic intrigue. In the filmic context, the song illuminates a contradictory, rootless kind of nostalgic desire among the characters, one that doesn’t seem sure of what it wants in view of Hong Kong’s peculiar and painful history. Evoking Shizuku’s translation of “Take Me Home” is the Cantonese cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” that plays when Faye is in Cop 663’s apartment, performed by Wong herself. While the globalisation of Ghibli reflects both an eclectic and inspired aesthetic and canny mass-marketing strategy, Gary Bettinson notes of Wong’s transnational filmmaking in The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-wai that “a culturally mixed score accurately denotes the heterogeneity of Hong Kong space” (p. 32). Hong Kong in Chungking Express exists in a purgatory of unspoken postcolonial tension, while Whisper resolves such East-West tension with the symbolic song functioning as a cohesive medley of multicultural influence. The integration of “California Dreamin’” with the film’s unsteady and cool-hued cinematography denotes its antithesis: remoteness, atomisation, and the feeling of being where you don’t belong (the narrator of the song escapes the cold to “pretend to pray” in a church).

Despite the differences between their musical strategies, the way the two films resolve are remarkably similar. Seiji and Shizuku reunite after his apprenticeship ends and she has written her story, both having learned and grown from their experiences, and Seiji proposes marriage to her. Faye and 663 are similarly reconciled and have become more mature and grounded. This mutual privileging of human relationships, and recognition of them as being inevitably braided to their city, is foregrounded in both films. Shizuku’s translation of “Take Me Home” ends up being far more of a personal, innovative reflection on her adolescence than it is about the city around her. While Hong Kong assaults the senses at the beginning of Chungking Express, the first dialogue we hear – 223’s voiceover overlaid on a time-lapsed establishing shot of the city – ruminates not on the urban environment, but on the fact that “every day we brush past so many other people.” Faye and 663’s meeting is marked by 663 turning off the loud song that obstructs their ability to communicate, while Faye asserts that California is “just the same. No big deal.” It’s as if these very different films have agreed that, regardless of how we may feel about our environments, the most important expression of belonging is to each other.

by Lauren Drozd

Lauren (she/her) is an English and American Literature and Film undergraduate at the University of Kent. She originally hails from Southampton and proudly shares a birthday with Rosa Luxemburg and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Her passions include medieval literature, Marxist feminism, and the films of Derek Jarman. She occasionally tweets @laurendrozd and posts on Instagram @lauren_drozd

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