“When you first become an artist, you are like that rock. You are in a raw, natural state with hidden gems inside. You have to dig down deep and find the emeralds tucked away inside you. And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve found your gems, you have to polish them. It takes a lot of hard work.”
On the surface, you may think that Whisper of the Heart doesn’t have much to offer by way of entertainment. At a glance, it seems like it may be a dud in the Ghibli canon. Its cover art may seem uninspired and it might look ordinary, boring, dull. It’s even the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone either than Miyazaki and Takahata, and that may cause some expectation of sub-par quality. But in actuality, surpassing expectations is what Whisper of the Heart is about.
This is a film which really surprised me with its heart, its thematic depth, and its wisdom for the artists in the audience. The screenplay was written by Hayao Miyazaki but Whisper of the Heart marked the directorial debut of Yoshifumi Kondo. I sense a little caution from the director in this work. He must have had some sense of standing among giants when he undertook this project. Apparently, he was being groomed as the inheritor of Studio Ghibli. Tragically, Kondo passed away from an aneurysm at the age of 47. Whisper of the Heart is his first and last directed film.
Whisper of the Heart is a romantic drama based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi named Mimi o Sumaseba (“If you listen closely”). I take the title to refer to the things the heart wants, sometimes without us knowing or contrary to our expectations and suspicions. When watching it, my wife said “You don’t really know what you want but your heart subtly tells you” like a whisper, even if reality sometimes challenges your expectations.
If you ask me, that’s a heck of a lot clearer than the “follow you heart” cliché we get here in the West.
The film centers around a young teen living in Tokyo named Shizuku Tsukishima. She seems to be the odd one in her family as her parents are both hardworking but un-artistic people, her mother is even in adult school, and her older sister Shiho is responsible, goal-oriented, and concerned with financial stability and independence. So pretty much everything that Shizuku is not.
Shizuku is a bookworm and an aspiring writer. She’s the typical young artist: absent-minded, easily distracted, head in the clouds, loves fairy tales, romanticizing everything, sentimental, and without concrete plans for her future. She never stops reading. She’s challenged herself to read so many books but doesn’t pay much attention to her high school entry exams. The real world seems to pass her by as she lives her life almost as if in a daydream state.
She discovers that many of the books she borrows from the library contain the name “Seiji Amasawa” on the checkout cards. It appears as if somebody borrowed the books and read them before she did. She’s curious and instantly her mind fantasizes that it must be someone utterly mysterious, as if something so mundane would lead to an adventure.
While talking with her friend Yuko, she forgets her notebook back at school and returns for it to find a boy is reading it. She’s embarrassed when he teases her about the lyrics she wrote in parody of “Take Me Home, Country Road”. She calls him a “stupid jerk” and is absolutely infuriated by him. But he isn’t really what he seems.
On day, while riding the train, she sees something unusual. There’s a fat, snobby cat riding the train beside her. Yearning for the fantastic, Shizuku follows the cat “down the rabbit hole” to nothing but the ordinary. The cat leads her to an old shopkeeper in an antique store. But the shopkeeper is a connection to her mysterious Amasawa and when she comes to finally meet him, she’s taken aback at who he turns out to be.
If there could be one proverb to sum up Shizuku’s adolescent yearning, it’s “truth is stranger than fiction”.
But that’s really only the first part of the film. The second part is more concerned with how Shizuku’s relationship influences her desire to be a writer. She must learn to add determination to inspiration if she’s going to be true to herself and measure up to her own standards, and really produce a respectable piece of work rather than just writing silly parodies John Denver songs.
Whisper of the Heart is a significant hidden gem in the Ghibli library, not just because it was successfully directed by neither Miyazaki or Takahata, but because of its personal message to young artists. It is one of the most personal films the studio has ever animated. Somehow it felt like it was speaking into my life and that is good storytelling.
As a writer, I’ve wrestled with all of the struggles Shizuku faces: realizing aspirations, taking the first steps to get there, finding inspiration, being responsible to get work done, setting goals for myself, fighting back disappointments, overcoming a sense of not being good enough, trying to impress others, and ultimately realizing that being a writer is a profession and not some saccharine fantasy fairy tale where things just happen to turn out perfectly. Human life seems to be too flawed, too arbitrary, too subtle to be that way.
Often in memory, I can recall times when I was paralyzed from achieving my dreams as a writer. One of my childhood friends gave me a rebuke of sorts for including real-world theology in a fantasy setting, which is something which I actually agree with C.S. Lewis on as a great way to sneak in truths: “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it”. He also said:
“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood…. But supposing that by casting all these things [Christian teachings] into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
But when I was criticized, I left off blogging on a previous blog I ran called Norton Literature for a while. Like any artist, I’ve faced criticism. But when I allowed it to derail my dreams, the results of that criticism were my own fault.
Overcoming the bullying and shaming, fair and unfair criticism, and dismissiveness of our acquaintances and even our friends all while being realistic is one of the big hurdles in becoming a writer and staying a writer. I haven’t yet achieved everything I’ve wanted to achieve, but with more than a fair share of inspiration from my wife and God’s grace I’ve been able to get this far, at least. I’ve had the pleasure of finishing a short story (and being happy with it!) and finishing a novella which is not yet published but which made a particularly stone-cold friend of mine “emotional”. I’ve been able to see this dream become a reality and not merely a lovely thought.
The most important thing, of course, hasn’t really been the achievements so much as it has been the pleasure of the process. If one doesn’t enjoy the process of writing, but only its product, how on Earth could one be a writer?
Luckily for Shizuku, she realizes that being a writer means working really hard and having a dream means overcoming, and thus she can become one. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re a writer (or really an artist of any kind), you should definitely watch this movie. I will always cherish it and it is a film I’m happy to show my friends for the first time.
The 8-bit Review
Whisper of the Heart represents the first introduction of digital processing into the strictly hand-drawn art by Studio Ghibli. Digital effects were used to compile the dreamlike imagery of Shizuku’s world in her writings. The film still retains an organic look to it and it is in no way compromised by the slight addition of the computerized.
The fantasy land of floating planets and magical cities was painted for Ghibli by surrealist-impressionist Inoue Naohisa. Miyazaki visited one of Naohisa’s exhibitions and was so impressed by the impressionist that the head animator bought one of Naohisa’s paintings, a scene which resembles the one in Shizuku’s fantasy novel. These scenes stand out from all the others since they’re obviously fantastic. They’re also just very interesting to look at.
The backgrounds of West Tokyo’s Tama Hills (yes, Shizuku lives in the residential development where the raccoons of Pom Poko once lived!) are splendidly drawn. Anime generally depicts Tokyo as a dreary urban environment, which I’m sure it is, but seen through the eyes of Shizuku the city and its trees, gardens, yards and schoolgrounds all seem to be possessed of life and energy. Somehow, Studio Ghibli managed to make intermediary scenes of power lines and ordinary houses beautiful to look at under the dazzling sunlight or sparkling with their lights in the night.
The dappled shadows under the trees seems to be a hallmark of this film, particularly, and it appears to be one of the things that the animators took great pleasure in crafting. Even though its setting is mundane, that didn’t stop the animators from filling Whisper of the Heart with wonder any less than in Ghibli’s other, more fantastical films.
If I had to pick something, I’d say the characters themselves are maybe the worst part of the visuals in this film. That isn’t to say they are at all terrible. They’re just slightly more simplified and less detailed and lifelike that what we’ve seen from Ghibli before. In a lot of ways, this film looks more like typical anime so far as the characters are concerned, but it’s still impressive to see Seiji pick up a violin and really seem to actually be playing it.
The score for Whisper of the Heart was composed by Yuji Nomi. I’m thinking at this point that Miyazaki keeps Joe Hisaishi in his pocket for his own films. Seeing as this is a Kondo film, getting a different composer seems to be appropriate and avoiding Hisaishi’s “big” sound with a more personal and smaller score was a decent move.
The soundtrack is innocent and pure, lighthearted and never dreading. It feels like the kind of music that would play in the mind of a 14-year-old girl like Shizuku with her head way up in the clouds. As she falls in love, it also seems like the kind of thing we heard when we fell in love, for those of us who have. I think it still avoids that excessive mushiness which creeps into so many romance dramas, as it sounds much more youthful and whimsical and has an element in it of the fantastic.
However, there are a number of tracks in this film which feel out of place. I have no idea what they were thinking with the little garbly song which plays when Shizuku calls Seiji a “stupid jerk”. I get it sounds like frustration, but it also sounds somewhat unpleasant because it doesn’t sound like much else in the film’s score.
The big name in the musical department is John Denver. His “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is all over this movie. I didn’t count but it plays over the opening credits and several characters sing variations of it throughout the film. It isn’t done on a fancy, since the song represents the yearnings in Shizuku’s heart. She even writes her own lyrics for the song and renames one version “Concrete Road” since she lives in modern Tokyo.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
So Shizuku does eventually meet with the boy who teased her about her lyrics at the antique store she found when following the cat. The boy explains that the cat isn’t his, but a vagabond named Muta that wanders the streets aimlessly (as if it’s following its heart only?). Shizuku follows the boy inside the antique store, though it’s closed, since he’s the shopkeeper’s grandson. When she follows him down the stairs to the back door of the shop, the narrow passageway parallels the narrow path she took to follow the cat initially: symbolic of a new adventure.
Shizuku gets a closer look at the Baron cat statuette in the shop and discovers that the boy is a violin maker and is studying to become an expert at his craft. He plays the tune for “Country Roads” for her and requests that she sing along.
I dreamed of living alone but fearless,
Secret longing to be courageous,
Loneliness kept bottled up inside,
Just reveal your brave face they’ll
Never know you lied.
Country road may lead me home,
Know I belong there all on my own
Destiny calls, motionless I stall,
No I can’t go,
The lyrics would seem like fishing for sympathy if we didn’t already know Shizuku’s personality was genuine. But while the two are enjoying their time together, the old shopkeeper shows up with some of his colleagues and they join in the music, then Shizuku discovers the awful truth that the young violinist who has been teasing her all this time is actually Seiji Amasawa, the one she fantasized about and had these grand hopes for.
However, they become friends and the beginnings of a relationship start to develop. But Seiji is going to leave for Cremona, Italy to study under a master violinist. Shizuku is inspired by him and the lengths he’s taking to achieve his dreams, so she finally grounds herself and purposes to take her writing seriously during the months he’s going to be gone. She wants to write something both she and Seiji can be proud of. She asks Nishi, Seiji’s grandfather the shopkeeper, for permission to write a story about the Baron. Nishi agrees but only if he gets to be the first one to read her manuscript.
Shizuku lets herself go into her story and comes up with this tale about the Baron seeking his lost love, Louise (based on a similar story which old Nishi tells her) and she even makes the neighborhood cat, Muta, the bad guy in her book. However, when her grades begin to drop because of all the time she spends writing, her sister and her parents take notice. It’s an obstacle.
When finally she finishes her story, she gives it to Nishi and then she falls apart crying from all of the emotional pressure she’s been under. Nishi is a kind old man who gives her some noodles to make her feel better, then tells her about how he studied abroad in Germany as a young man and met his first love, Louise, who owned the Baron’s counterpart. But the lovers and the statuettes were separated by World War II. They never saw each other again.
Shizuku goes back home to tell her parents that she’ll be devoting her time to studying again, having become a better and more responsible person through what she forced herself to undergo in the writing process.
At the end of the movie, Seiji appears below her window early in the morning. He came back early from Italy to finish high school. Riding his bicycle, he invites Shizuku to come with him. He tries to peddle her up a steep hill as a visual for how hard he wants to work but she gets off and helps him up the hill. What a picture of marriage! Speaking of which, Seiji and Shizuku get to the top of a lookout to watch the sunrise. Seiji explains that this is where he goes to get inspired and that he wanted to show it to Shizuku. Then he proposes to her. BOOM!
The ending may be a little abrupt and it’s been a source of slight controversy, but Miyazaki defended it by saying:
“I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen’.”
That resolve perfectly fits with the themes of the movie.
“You know things never turn out like they do in fairy tales.”
Great themes are what keep this film from sinking into fluff and cheese. The film is about expectations in life, as well. Shizuku is mortified when Sugimura confesses his crush on her and she doesn’t expect it. Shizuku learns the story of the royal who falls in love with a fairy but the fairy turns into a sheep. She’s chasing after love but when it was presented to her she didn’t recognize it. Shizuku suspects something mysterious and wonderful about Amasawa with his name in the books she checks out from the school library, but once she learns that it was Seiji Amasawa, she’s disappointed and frustrated by his teasing. In the end they get together, of course, and he was really everything she wanted in a romantic partner but it was a matter of him not being what she thought she wanted. When he proposes, she accepts.
The Baron’s eyes shine under the light of the afternoon and Seiji explains that it was an accident, a flaw, during the production of the eyes in the doll that cause them to glimmer like that. This too is a metaphor for Seiji and Shizuku’s relationship, from her perspective (not his): an accident and a flaw which turns out to be beautiful.
The Baron himself and the old shopkeeper are both looking for their partners, but they’ve waited and looked for so long that they’re both grown old and remained alone. This is a very real danger for Shizuku. She risks waiting so long for her ideals in love that she may miss her opportunity to be with Seiji, a fellow artist with whom she can share mutual understanding. Both she and Seiji think of themselves as “not good enough”, Shizuku as a writer and Seiji as a violin maker.
Shizuku’s nightmare fantasy is one of the powerful moments in the film and it crystallizes her feelings of being insufficient and inferior to Seiji. She runs through a tunnel searching for the right gemstone and when she picks one, hoping it’s the right one, she opens her hands to find she’s holding a dead chicken fetus and she screams.
Confronting this is what it means to be an artist. You have to add determination and hard work to inspiration and imagination. Shizuku tries to be a writer on the basis of the power of her heart alone and it’s not enough. It doesn’t help that she’s something of a perfectionist, like many of us, but she needs to gain more experience and keep on developing her skill to become the writer she wants to be.
She isn’t true to herself when she says “I love being a writer!” when only her closest friends compliment her work on the graduation song. She’s frustrated by what she’s produced because it isn’t the masterpiece she wants it to be. It can’t be. Writing is a craft which must be cultivated, encouraged, refined, and perfected over time.
Old Nishi the shopkeeper gives her a geode which encapsulates this theme. He says to her that there are gemstones inside of her, just like in the rock, which must be cut, polished and properly presented. Some of them may not be worth anything, but the work must still be done to discover the real valuable crystals inside. That may just be the most profound thing I’ve ever heard about the art of writing. Remember, Hayao Miyazaki was the writer on this film.
Reality and responsibility will come a-knocking. There are two moments in the film which I feel parallel each other, though there may be others. The first is when Shizuku is told the story about the fairy turning into the sheep on the grandfather clock when the clock’s hands move, a small movement yet it shocks her out of her reverie, and she’s suddenly reminded that she has a duty to keep. The second is when old Nishi dreams about Louise coming into his shop to find that he has grown old, then the wood in his fireplace shifts as the fire has gone out, and he wakes from the dream to reality.
I feel like there’s so much more to be discovered and expounded upon in Whisper of the Heart about the nature of creativity. Miyazaki poured it in here. Thematically, it’s a very underrated film and there are many hidden gemstones to be found in this film about finding the hidden gemstones within ourselves. This film is absolutely NOT to be labeled as just another typical high school romance chick-flick!
Family Friendliness: 9/10
This is a really innocent film. Maybe the only thing that anyone could take offense at is one brief scene where Shizuku’s sister takes off her shift to get in the bath, revealing a bra, but it is extremely momentary and very matter-of-fact. Her sister is a matter-of-fact person living in reality and bathing is just a necessary function. But there it is, anyways.
I also found it refreshing to watch an innocent film about young people falling in love that isn’t all about angst and sex appeal. Seems like every time I watch a movie with teenagers it’s like watching octopuses crawling all over each other. In Whisper of the Heart, Seiji and Shizuku silently hold hands before he leaves for Italy. They don’t even kiss once! I don’t think the film is advocating from abstinence from public displays of affection. I think it’s just innocent in that regard. It’s not like Shizuku is after Seiji for sex, or Seiji after her for the same. As artists, they mutually respect and are in awe of each other and receive their inspiration from each other.
Though the film doesn’t show us, I think that those things are an indication that they would have enjoyed a long, fruitful and satisfying relationship together.
So this is an okay voice cast with no major missteps but no bright shining lights. Brittany Snow plays Shizuku Tsukishima with earnestness befitting a girl the character’s age. David Gallagher as Seiji Amasawa is able to bring both the curt, abrasive side and the gentle, tender side of his character to bear. James Sikking, Jean Smart, and Courtney Thorne-Smith are appropriate as Shizuku’s dad, mom and sister respectively. Harold Gould has perhaps the most character to his voice as the aged shopkeeper, Shiro Nishi. There’s of course the second Ghibli appearance of Cary Elwes performing a few lines as the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen in Shizuku’s fantasy world (Mr. Elwes’ also appeared in Porco Rosso as Donald Curtis).
Defying expectations, Whisper of the Heart is more than the chick-flick, high school drama, or romance that it could’ve been easily passed off as. Yoshifumi Kondo managed to present something which appeals to a wider audience that just preteen girls. Here, Miyazaki had the opportunity to speak into the creative processes of so many individuals across the globe. And what he had to say about being an artist remains profound.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Whisper of the Heart is my second favorite Studio Ghibli film, right behind Porco Rosso. I am not generally into romantic dramas. I’m a red-blooded American nerd. Give me a good sci-fi! Romantic dramas are overly sentimental and gushy, most of the time. At least to my mind. Usually I’ll sit through them to please my wife, or watch them on a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. Last one I think I enjoyed was Sleepless in Seattle or something. All that to say, I first went into watching Whisper of the Heart with a “Let’s get this one out of the way!” kind of attitude.
I ended up being blown away and I learned a little more about myself.
Aggregated Score: 8.3
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