This film has made a quiet impact on my life. It’s not as sweepingly epic as Princess Mononoke, nor even as cute and funny as something like Ponyo, but nevertheless, this modest coming-of-age story has really resonated with me. It tells the story of a young teenage girl called Shizuku, as she goes through school, indulges in her hobby of reading fantasy and fairytales, and meets a young boy who inspires her to pursue her dreams. It’s part romance, part self-discovery, but all portrayed in a very sensitive and moving way. It’s hardly the kind of plot that will inspire rowdy discussion, but more the kind that prompts a bit of introspection. For me, someone who is running out of time to figure out what to do after graduation, this film captured so much of the turbulence, the anxiousness and the journey to self-belief and confidence, that I have personally gone through and will continue to experience in the coming months.
Now, a lot of the promotional material for this film seems to emphasise these dream-like fantasy sequences involving a girl and a tall well-dressed cat, so you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a fantasy adventure film. But Shizuku is no fantasy heroine: she is merely a young teenage girl, a student and a day-dreamer. Even without the impetus of some epic quest, Whisper of the Heart manages to portray genuine character development that comes across so subtly that it’s hard to pinpoint where it all is. Shizuku starts off a slightly absentminded but friendly girl, living in an urban Japanese town full of winding streets through the hillside. The film shows Shizuku as she leads her completely normal life, starting off with her discovery of the name Seiji Amasawe in all her library books. She has her best friend who is concerned about her crush; she is responsible for the housework whilst her mother is doing a master’s degree; her older sister returns from college and constantly nags her; and a rather cocky young boy stumbles upon some song lyrics Shizuku writes for her graduation and teases her for it. All of these small little troubles casually come in and out of Shizuku’s life, and emphasis is put on the realism of this portrayal.
But fantasy lovers, don’t despair, for there are small elements of fantasy involved. After a series of coincidences, Shizuku is led to a gorgeous antiques shop where she is captivated by a porcelain statue of a well-dressed cat. She spends some time with the shop owner who shows her a gorgeously crafted grandfather clock which he had been restoring. At the strike of 12, the cabinet opens to reveal some dwarves mining gemstones; above on the clock face though, the sheep turns into a beautiful fairy and a prince emerges to look at her. It is immediately clear to both Shizuku and the shopkeeper that this grandfather clock represents love of the most tragic kind: the kind that can’t be reconciled. For Shizuku, the antiques shop is like something out of her fairytales.
To add to the fairytale story, the cocky boy turns out to be Seiji, the grandson of the antique shop owner and of course, the boy behind the name in all the library books. Shizuku returns to the shop, only to be let in by Seiji who reveals that he is an amateur violin maker with aspirations to study in Italy to become a great one. Shizuku begs him for a song, so with some reluctance, he starts playing and prompts her to sing along. Fans of American folk-country (and to be honest, most people) will recognise the song as Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver. The song pops up often in the film, as Shizuku is reworking its lyrics for her graduation, but it serves as a sort of nostalgic reminder of hometowns throughout the film. Seiji then tells Shizuku of his ambitions to work under a violin maker in Italy, and that he is leaving to study under him for two months as a sort of test of his worth.
Seiji leaves his mark on Shizuku. His devotion to his violin making and his passion for pursuing his dream, to the extent that he is willing to uproot and move half-way across the world for it, is something which both inspires and terrifies Shizuku. Immediately, she is left wondering, “How can I measure up to that?”. For a while, Shizuku is incredibly depressed both at the fact that Seiji is leaving and because she does not feel worthy of being with him.
It is in these scenes that the powerful magic of Studio Ghibli comes through. Without using any actual magic or fantasy, I was awestruck by how moving this part of Shizuku’s life was. Prior to this, watching Shizuku is interesting but only mildly, as she goes through a relatively normal stage of her life; after her mini break-down though, I was so emotionally invested in her as a character. And partially that’s because I felt like I could relate so strongly to the character. I really felt like I understood Shizuku in those moments when she’s saying “I’m not good enough.” It’s a feeling I’ve wrestled with time and time again in my life. It’s one that a lot of people will, I’m sure. And her inner turmoil is portrayed in such a beautifully realistic way that I think it will be hard for people to not sympathise. Sure, it’s not as though her world is ending and being razed to the ground in some adventure epic and it’s not as though she suffers from great personal tragedy: but these feelings of low self-esteem and lack of confidence are just so deeply intense and hauntingly beautiful.
Of course, with time, Shizuku works her way through her melancholy. On the other side she emerges, determined to prove herself, and like Seiji, sets herself a two month target to achieve something. That something happens to be writing. So for two months, she spends all her time drafting a fiction novel and in the library researching for inspiration and information. She withdraws from her life somewhat, neglecting her schoolwork, all in a desperate passionate attempt to write all her fantasies down on paper. I think most of us can relate to that too; it’s a testimony to the way artistic endeavours can often suck us in and make us lose track of time and priorities. It is during these sequences that we start to see some dream-like animation with attempts to illustrate the artistic process that Shizuku is going through.
Funnily enough, the one thing I was most disappointed with is usually the thing I love best about Studio Ghibli. The fantasy dream sequences or imaginations of Shizuku’s fictional story appear rather abruptly. They’re interspersed with scenes from Shizuku’s normal life, but to be honest, by that point I was so invested in her everyday life that I found the diversion into the realm of fantasy a little annoying. The scenes added nothing to the story, nothing to Shizuku’s development, and only offered the barest of glimpses into her imagination. Don’t get me wrong, they’re gorgeous bits of animation drawn by Naohisa Inoue, but in this case, the serene moody beauty of Shizuku’s urban town was much more enchanting than the magical gaudy landscapes in these dream sequences.
In fact, one of the most striking things about the film is its urban setting and how it manages to come across so painstakingly detailed and sublime. From the windy streets of the hillside town to the bustle of the train station, every part of Shizuku’s world is subtly realised in the backgrounds behind her. For some reason, it invokes Asia to me, and it’s the first film that’s made me somewhat long to return there. Although I’ve never visited Japan, the urban buildings interspersed with tall natural surroundings reminded me of Malaysia; the high-rise buildings with cement staircases and all the young students dressed in uniform wandering around reminded me of my aunt’s apartment in Singapore. It’s very unlike other Ghibli films which tend to show off a more rural side of Japan; in those, the beauty comes from tapping into nostalgia. In Whisper of the Heart however, the beauty comes across as raw and real, as existing between the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and between work and school and friendships and love.
I won’t spoil how the film ends. Needless to say, Shizuku finishes the novel and through that process, comes to know herself much better. Seiji too returns and he also has matured as a person. Both end up not entirely certain of their futures, but all in all, more certain about themselves and their relationship too. As a coming of age movie, it summarises the tumultuous emotions of growing up all too well.
Overall, the film is a quiet masterpiece. It’s an incredible shame that director Yoshifumi Kondo died just three years after the making of this film, after being trained to be Miyazaki’s successor. I can definitely understand why he was considered the protégé. His quiet realisation of urban woes is remarkably different from Miyazaki’s usual films, but no less powerful for it. With some more practice and polish, I would have enjoyed more works directed by Kondo. His slow and deliberate choice of shots and his ability to say so much in a scene with relatively little in the way of eye-candy, is truly the mark of an accomplished artist. Whisper of the Heart at least stands a testimony to what could have been, and my god, is that a good legacy to leave behind.