Japanese Title: Mimi wo Sumaseba
Directed By: Yoshifumi Kondo
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki
Originally Released: July 15, 1995
Until this week, I had never seen Whisper of the Heart. Though given the title, I was expecting another Slice of Life type film, Let me tell you, I was not one bit excited about that. After the overly melodramatic teens of Ocean Waves, I was hoping for more films full of fantasy. With a whole lot of heavy sighing, I sat down to watch Whisper of the Heart, and boy did I get a surprise. While this film is certainly a slice of life coming of age story, it represents something far greater. It’s a film about creativity and the painstaking, almost lonely process of bringing art to life. Beyond that is this idea that while life can be boring compared to fairy tales, there is plenty of magic to be found in real life. Whisper of the Heart is delightful, heart warming and beautiful in its exploration of teen life.
While Miyazaki is definitely a big part of this film, having written the script, which was based on a manga by Hiiragi Aoi, and drawn the story boards, I think it’s important to point out director, Kondo Yoshifumi. While this was his only film for Ghibli as Director, he actually was an artist that worked on all Ghibli productions up through Princess Mononoke. Unfortunately, after that film he died of a brain aneurysm in 1998. He was only 47 years old. And it’s incredibly heartbreaking because his work on Whisper of the Heart is superb and easily rivals that of Takahata and Miyazaki.
Whisper of the Heart tells the story of Shizuku Tsukishima, a junior high student who, like most, doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She knows that she loves reading fairy tales and she knows that she likes writing song lyrics but that’s about it. Out the outset, we get the feeling that her home situation is less than ordinary. Her father works all day at the library while mom is taking classes so her and her older sister are left to tend the house. Add to this that boys are stupid and you have everything you need for a good coming of age story. Yet even in its realistic world, there are plenty of mysteries and magics to unravel.
For example, she keeps finding a name written on the check-out card of all the books she checks out of the library, Seiji Amasawa. Then, one day on the train, she finds herself seated next to a fat grey cat, who gets off at her stop. She ends up following it to an antique shop where she meets owner Shiro Nishi, an old man who shows her whimsical antique clocks and a statue of a cat in a suit called Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. You might notice that despite having no magic to speak of, the story sort of sounds like a fairy tale.
And that’s really what makes this film come to life. The entire idea of slice of life is in the title. We are seeing very real people in real situations. In many ways, we’re viewing the mundane, yet here we see a bit of fantasy infused into the tail. A mystery at the library. A cat who rides the subway. An old clock which tells a tale of unrequited love. Sure, it could all happen in real life, and in fact, this film could have easily been shot in live action. But there’s that little extra something that makes it super captivating to behold. Yet, if this was simply a slice of life tale with some moments of wonder, I still might not have loved it as much. It’s the central story of first love that takes all these fun elements and drives them to the finish line.
Shizuku and Seiji have a pretty standard love story. They start out rocky. Seiji teases Shizuku about an early draft of her song lyrics and she proceeds to label him a jerk. But as time goes on, they start to find the beauty and the creativity in each other. Seiji has the romantic dream of becoming a professional violin maker. Awe, to be young. Shizuku of course finds this to be magical. She realizes that she too wants to have a passion. This causes her to start writing her story, a tale of the very same baron cat statue which sits in Seiji’s grandfather’s shop.
Take note because what spurs on this love story aren’t good looks or superficiality. They fall for each other in a love of reading and a desire to inspire each other. Not only is it wonderfully thoughtful and romantic, it’s also quite a good lesson for kids their age to see. Early on, Shizuku implies to her friends that she should go out with a boy simply because he likes her. But by the end, Shizuku finds a boy that she likes because he pushes her to be better. He inspires her to create. That’s a real reason to go out with someone.
And watching these two create their art is one of the deepest joys I found in this film. Shiro explains to Shizuku that a creation is like a rock which must be polished before it is a diamond. No first draft or first try is EVER going to be amazing. NEVER! That’s why you have to hone your skill. Search for feedback. Improve. In this way, making a violin and writing a story are very similar. I also loved seeing Shizuku discover her love for writing. It really is wonderful to watch a character find that thing that keeps them all night. That skill that no matter how tired they get, they can’t stop doing. It’s just another piece of the magic that makes Whisper of the Heart so special.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I really loved this film. It’s just so special. It’s a Ghibli film that I’m willing to bet many Ghibli lovers haven’t seen and that’s a shame because it is true artistry. Despite telling a story that lives in the realm of the mundane, I was captivated and inspired by it from beginning to end. And even if you don’t care about the magical exploration of the creative process, I’m happy to say that there is an adorable love story here that shows how respect and the desire to drive one another can lead to something wonderful. For the record, Shizuku is a fantastic female protagonist. The moment near the end where Seiji tries to drive them both up a steep hill on a bike and she gets off to help push because she’s “Not just around for the ride” is an effortless feministic moment and it left me with a smile on my face. If you haven’t had the chance to see Whisper of the Heart, well, there’s no time like the present. I think you too will be pleasantly surprised.
NEXT UP: Princess Mononoke