Whisper of the Heart by Yoshifumi Kondō
Animé fans have been rejoicing. Spirited Away has won an Oscar for “Best Animated Feature” and Disney is making a concerted to effort to release all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films here in the U.S. I can only hope that Disney, or some other animation company, will give the same treatment to the films of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli comrades.
To the best of my knowledge, the only other Studio Ghibli film that has been released domestically is Isao Takahata’s haunting Grave Of The Fireflies. However, according the Nausicaa.Net website (an excellent source for all things Studio Ghibli), that still leaves at least 6 movies that are only available to American animé fans via expensive imports (or bootlegs, if you wish to go that route).
But if Whisper of the Heart is any indication (and I have no reason to believe otherwise, given the uniform excellence I’ve seen so far from Studio Ghibli), that means there’s a veritable goldmine of films just waiting to be discovered.
The first half of Whisper of the Heart is truly magical, a meandering fairy tale where wonder abounds at every corner. The film’s main character, Shizuku, is a young girl preparing for high school. A bookworm and songwriter, she has decided to read as many books as possible during her vacation while also translating various songs into Japanese for her friends. Thumbing through one of her books, she sees that a boy named Seiji Amasawa had previously checked it out. Recognizing the name from several other books she has read, Shizuku decides to discover more about this kindred spirit.
Shortly thereafter, she meets a mysterious cat on the train who leads her to a strange little shop full of knick-knacks and curios. The shopowner, a grandfatherly man named Nishi, introduces her to Baron Humbert Von Jikkingen, a tall statue of a cat dressed in a suit, and whose emerald eyes come alive in the light. The shop is also where she finally meets Seiji, and she discovers that the boy she found herself falling for is the last person she expected or wanted.
Soon after the two meet and share their feelings, the movie takes a subtle but noticeable turn. As the first seeds of love sprout between the two, Seiji reveals that he’ll be leaving for Italy to pursue his dream of becoming a violinmaker. Shizuku realizes that, unlike Seiji, she has no real ambitions or dreams of her own. In fact, she’s isn’t really excited by her life at all; even the books she once loved don’t mean as much to her anymore. Inspired by Seiji and determined to find her own path in life, Shizuku decides to write a novel about the Baron and his exploits.
At this point, the film takes a colder, more distant tone. It took me awhile to realize it, but when Shizuku begins to work on her novel, things didn’t feel quite right. At first, I almost felt like I was watching a different film. But as it slowly dawned on me what was going on, I realized that this simple, heartfelt story had suddenly become a bit deeper and more complex.
Through her encounters with Seiji, Nishi, and the Baron, Shizuku has experienced some truly wonderful things. These moments empower her, and she desperately tries to use them to inspire her story. At first, things go smoothly, and Shizuku’s imagination runs wild as she begins her story. This leads to one of the movie’s most awe-inspiring scenes, as Shizuku dreams of soaring with the Baron over a floating landscape reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Laputa (Castle In The Sky).
However, Shizuku is afraid that she won’t complete the story before Seiji arrives. She constantly pushes herself, and begins slacking off in school and ignoring her family. Worst of all, she begins to doubt herself. She worries that she isn’t a good writer, that her story will turn out to be a failure, as will she. Her dreams become more troubled as her growing desperation threatens to snuff any inspiration.
I realize that the story I’ve described may not sound all that dramatic on paper, but watching it unfold onscreen is an entirely different matter. When I first watched the movie, I had to pause it three times to take care of something else in the “real” world. Each time I did so, it was a jarring experience, and I couldn’t wait to be drawn back into the film’s world. It’s been said that, after reading Tolstoy’s novels, one felt as if they were returning to something paler and less true than the art itself. Watching Studio Ghibli’s films, and Whisper of the Heart in particular, I feel like I have some understanding of that sentiment.
It should be a bygone conclusion that any film produced by Studio Ghibli will be full of lush animation and visuals, but Whisper of the Heart seems especially so. Everything is rendered without compare, from the labyrinthine streets and crowded apartments that make up Shizuku’s world to the mysterious shop and the Baron’s fiery eyes. While the designs of the characters themselves are somewhat plain (though still very expressive, especially Shizuku when she’s teased), the world they inhabit is as detailed as you can imagine, if not moreso.
Deftly interwoven throughout the scenery is Yuji Nomi’s beautiful score, which moves from lush string arrangements to quirky pop songs to delightful little jigs. The music makes for one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie, as one of Shizuku’s compositions, a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads”, is brought to life. It’s a delightful scene, if only to see Shizuku’s reaction when she realizes the beauty in her own creation. As an added bonus, it sets up the cute scene where Shizuku finally realizes Seiji’s identity.
I was excited to watch Whisper of the Heart, but I found it far more rewarding and relevant than I thought possible. I think we all know what it’s like to experience magic in our lives, and to want to create a work worthy of such moments (you’re looking at one). However, doubt and anxiety inevitably set in. We stop listening to the work (to borrow a page from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water) and start focusing on our own perceived flaws and weaknesses.
Like Shizuku, we forget that it is not about us, but always about where the inspiration, the work itself takes us. We become so intent on living up to our inspiration that we lose sight of it altogether. What should be a joyful task becomes laborious, drab, and desperate.
Whisper of the Heart is a gentle warning against such things, even as it reminds us that beauty remains everywhere, be it in something as special as a first love, as simple as singing a song, or as mundane as concrete roads.