Thursday, March 3, 2011

Whisper of the Heart

(1995) Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo; Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Available on DVD

Rating: **** 

The Japanese-animated Whisper of the Heart is the sort of film that could never have emerged from the Hollywood system.  Its deliberate (some might say slow) pacing, allows the viewer to be introduced gradually to the individual subtleties of its characters, and gives them time to breathe and take on a life of their own.  Most animated Disney offerings would have been filled with random slapstick, smart-alecky peripheral characters, and show-stopping musical numbers (The filmmakers of Whisper of the Heart apparently have an unfortunate obsession with a particular John Denver song, but more on that later.).  Here, however, the emphasis is on the characters. 

The main character, Shizuku, is a junior high school girl, on the cusp of womanhood.  Her driving passion is reading, often to the detriment of her school work and derision by classmates.  Her interest is piqued by a name that keeps appearing on the books she checks out from her school library, Seiji Amasawa.  This mystery person appears to share her love of books and subject matter, and she becomes determined to find out who he is.  As the clues eventually lead to a boy her age, this sets the stage for a serendipitous but reluctant romance.  I couldn’t help but notice that this little plot device is sadly obsolete now, with book checkouts by paper card having gone the way of the slide rule.  At one point, the film even acknowledges Shizuku’s disdain for the electronic card catalog that’s soon to replace the paper one.  Of course, without the paper trail, there would be no story.

Aside from the characters and story, Whisper of the Heart is beautifully animated, with meticulous attention to detail.  Director Yoshifumi Kondo doesn’t forget the minutiae that comprise a believable world, such as swinging hand straps inside a commuter train, the intricate workings of an old clock, moths of various shapes and sizes fluttering around a light, or the iridescent eyes of a cat statue known as “The Baron.” Architecture in Shizuku’s town looks distinct and fully rendered, not cartoonish.  There is also a natural, three-dimensional quality to the animation, which appropriately conveys a natural appearance to the hilly countryside and winding roads.  Similarly, height and depth are depicted in an entirely convincing manner.

Fans of another Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns, will undoubtedly recognize two non-human characters that make brief appearances here.  Both have pivotal roles, lending mildly fantastical elements to a story that’s largely grounded in reality.   In one scene, Shizuku follows the pudgy cat Moon (aka: Muta) on a train and through an affluent neighborhood, leading her to an antique shop with unexpected treasures.  As she explores her writing, she fashions a tale involving The Baron, and his cat-centric world.  We are treated to a handful of fantasy sequences as her words describe The Baron’s adventures.

Although many of the themes in Whisper of the Heart are more or less universal, there are some significant cultural differences, compared to Western society.  Much emphasis is placed on Shizuku’s neglect of her studies, and her poor test scores.  Her individuality takes a backseat to what’s expected of her, which is to work hard so she can get into a good high school.  From an American perspective it might seem like an alien concept to have your future mapped out at such an early age, with a clear idea of what your future livelihood will be.  There is also a great deal of  pressure from Shizuku’s other family members to succeed, as exemplified by her hard-working older sister, graduate student mother, and father who works in a library.   Shizuku’s struggles are largely applicable to anyone, however, as she tries to find her place in the world while listening to her heart’s desire.  All of this is weighed against real world responsibility, tempered by the potential price of failure.  The film suggests that there is a happy medium to be discovered, as Shizuku finds a balance between responsibility and dreams.

One of the more beguiling aspects of Whisper of the Heart does not involve the cultural differences, but an unfortunate preoccupation with the John Denver song “Country Roads,” which presumably serves as a sort of mantra for following the ambling roads of your dreams.  One version of the song is heard at the beginning of the film, followed by several iterations of the same tune, milking it for all its worth.  Don’t let that scare you, though.  Aside from the aforementioned John Denver tune, Whisper of the Heart is a charming exploration of young love, imagination, and the triumph of self-discovery over self-doubt.


  1. I've seen and enjoyed both Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns. My take on The Cat Returns was that it is best interpreted as being a story that had been written by the character of Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart. She took notice of the cats (one real and one fake) and created her own story about them, which became the basis for the second movie.

  2. It's a pity *you* didn't appreciate the Denver tune, Barry. To my wife and I, the scene where Shizuku and Seiji sing her version of "Country Roads", and are interrupted by Seiji's grandfather and his friends, who take up instruments and join in, is one of the most touching and magical moments in all the amazing movies to have come from Studio Ghibli. Merely thinking of that scene fills me with a sense of unbridled joy.

    You might also appreciate knowing that John Denver was pretty huge in Japan. Japanese audiences for this movie would most likely have known the song quite well. Suffice to say, I don't find this "preoccupation" unfortunate in the slightest, but rather delightfully quirky, in the inimitable Ghibli way. The wistful and sentimental tone of Denver's hit song fits the attitude of Tsukushima Shizuku (the heroine) perfectly.

  3. What can I say? I'm not a John Denver fan. Great film, though.