Those who are generally unfamiliar with acclaimed Japanese animators, Studio Ghibli, might be forgiven for thinking that every movie is either an epic fantasy tale or aimed at entertaining young children. Big hitters Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and My Neighbour Totoro are all richly detailed stories full of Japanese mythology or European fantasy influences. Yet, shining out from its contemporaries are wonderfully personable movies such as 1995’s Whisper Of The Heart.
Shizuku Tsukishima is a 14 year old Junior High School student who lives and breathes reading fiction. Whilst on a train ride to the library she is surprised by a cat sitting next to her. Deciding to follow it, she discovers an antique shop that contains an exquisite cat statuette called “the Baron”. She is inspired to try and write her own story, whilst also wondering as to the identity of Seiji Amasawa, a boy who had already previously checked out from the library pretty much every book she’s read.
Whisper Of The Heart is one of the few Studio Ghibli movies with no fantasy element to it, instead focusing on city life for a young teenage girl.
Shizuku is dealing with issues such as confusing relationships and trying to figure out what her future path should be. As she rages at a dense boy who can’t figure out that her friend is in love with him only to be blindsided by his attraction to her is the kind of relatable everyday life that fills most of our adolescence. As her sense of self grows we get wonderful lines of dialogue. “I am no man’s burden!” Shizuku huffs as she jumps off the back of a bike being laboriously pushed up a hill by a boy. Rather than puncturing his attempt at a romantic gesture, it means that they get to enjoy it on equal terms.
Whilst there is a love story element at play here, the core element of the movie is a much more mature reflection on what it takes to fulfill your own potential and feeling of self-worth. The manner in which Shizuku pursues her dream of writing a story is beset by problems such as failing grades and a hen pecking family. She can’t leave the house without being given a task. Her parents are emotionally absent, and her elder sister keeps chastising her for not pulling her weight with the housework.
In Hollywood land, Shizuku would likely come out of this with a fantastic story that proves her talent. However, Whisper Of The Heart’s angle is that skill in a craft takes continuous effort, which feeds in to Shizuku’s personal development. “I just couldn’t get the words out of my head,” she sobs after two months of effort. Anyone who has ever worked at writing will know that this is the far more realistic approach to creativity.
Considering it is set in suburban Toyko, Whisper Of The Heart is also a joy of a movie to spend time in. The clacking of trains mixes with traffic shushing over wet roads, all illuminated by fluorescent lights. Shizuku and family live in a cramped apartment with books stacked everywhere and a shared bunk bed bedroom for the two sisters, meaning that everyone is basically falling over each other. During the day the skies bloom in beautiful blue. Shizuku’s trek up the steep steps in Tama City (a suburb of Tokyo) to the antique shop is a delightful exploration for both her and the audience alike.
The rich catalogue of Studio Ghibli movies are mostly attributed to two directors (and studio founders), Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Although the screenplay was adapted by Miyazaki from a source manga by Aoi Hiiragi, Whisper is directed instead by the sadly deceased Yoshifumi Kondō. Between them, Whisper is imbued with a whimsical, delightful, and mature delve into the mental challenges of youth. It appeals to nostalgia for when life revolves around study and uncertainty, but also when your own identity is formed. The movie certainly makes my heart flutter, and I hope it will for you too.
Words by Michael Record