Whisper of the Heart is a quiet and charming film which happens to be my personal favourite film, animated or not – a position its held ever since I first saw it as a young teenager. Years later, even after joining the often jaded world of adults, a quick revisit to this delightful story never fails to bring back that optimistic young adolescent within me. Whisper is a film about the minor joys of life succinctly rolled into one sweet package, shown from the perspective of a young girl at the age where she first begins to experience and appreciate them. Whisper is the quintessential coming of age story, encompassing topics like friendship, family, dreams, ambitions, and it never falters in its genuine sincerity. It’s grounded firmly in reality – but in an endearing reality surrounded by kind, likable people and charming discoveries and interactions. The story it tells appears, on the surface, to be a simple one, but its true appeal is the quiet way in which it makes the case that wholesomeness and idealism are beautiful, worthwhile aspects of life.
The original name for this film was Mimi wo Sumaseba, which literally means “If you clear your ears” (or, less literally, “If you listen closely”, the more frequent translation). Many people would begin to describe it as a slice-of-life story, or perhaps a romance, but that simply isn’t adequate. Yes, there is a love story in the film, but the film is very different from those that immediately come to mind when considering the genre. Shizuku and Seiji, the two main characters in the film, are clearly presented as future love interests, yes, but more importantly, they are two interesting, complex people who each challenge the other’s drive to succeed and fulfill their ambitions. Shizuku’s role in the film isn’t merely to meet a male love interest and live happily ever after, instead, he is the catalyst for her own attempt to pursue her subdued goals. In what is perhaps a favourite scene of mine, we see Seiji making violins and we, along with Shizuku, learn of his passion for the art and are as impressed and as moved as she is. This scene also features a wonderful musical impromptu that is integrated into the story, and it wouldn’t be too spoiling to call it one of the best musical inserts in any animated film.
However, even as we are given the message to follow our goals and ambitions, we aren’t drenched in a saccharine depiction of this pursuit – Shizuku understands the need to focus on studying, her parents reinforce the message that risks are worth taking only if you can handle the consequences, and at the very end, when Shizuku’s hard work is finally complete, she trembles with fear over the idea that it will be worthless, that she has none of the talent she wants. When the twinkly-eyed grandfather of Seiji, who befriends Shizuku and becomes something of a mentor to her, praises her work, her instinct is to break into tears, convinced it is a lie, that her work is no good. And the old man agrees – it is rough and unpolished, as expected from a young author, but it is an accomplishment, it is a first step towards something greater, and that is valuable in itself. That is another one of my favourite scenes from this film and a very touching piece of dialogue.
Then there is the believable, sweet portrayal of the Tsukashima family. As usual for Miyazaki, who wrote the screenplay for this film, the woman characters are bold and outspoken: the older sister works part time while the mother is studying in graduate school. Little details like these aren’t necessary yet enrich the setting and the background. The interactions between the family members, the dialogue between older sister and mother, or father and daughter (discussing poor grades) – everything is so natural and smooth that we have no trouble envisioning this is as a real, affectionate family – they may as well be living next door. And as Miyazaki likes to do, he subverts family archetypes and presents the father as a soft-spoken and respectful – but firm – man.
But the film shines no less in its more wondrous moments, in its depiction of the curiosity of the adolescent mind. In one scene, Shizuku chases a strange cat throughout a hilly town, running through familiar concrete roads and stairwells through a town that is so familiar but so beautiful that it makes you want to go out and explore your own town just to share the experience. There are also two brief interludes of fantasy, where we delve into Shizuku’s mind and see the wonderful products of her imagination. These scenes were directed by Miyazaki himself, and his love for flying is evident throughout.
It goes without saying that the artwork and animation overall are miles above most anime. This is Studio Ghibli, after all, and everything is there – the small details which breathe realism into every scene, the gorgeous backgrounds – even when set in a suburban environment. My favourite example is the musical impromptu I mentioned above. You can really see the benefits of Studio Ghibli’s attention to detail in the way the musicians are portrayed, the movements of their fingers, their posture, even the instruments themselves (rather than sticking him with a cello, the artists decided that Seiji’s grandfather, who owns an antique shop, would be better off with the relatively rare viola de gamba – a difference that most people would never notice).
Then there is the music itself. I am as much of a fan of Hisaishi Joe as anyone else, but after hearing the magnificent work that Yuuji Nomi did for Whisper, I cannot help but wonder why he has had such little work offered to him. His score with Whisper so perfectly embodies the innocence and charm of the film itself. His main theme, heard here in Oka no Machi, starts off pleasant and simple, and continually evolves musically, different instruments come to the forefront, the key changes suddenly, we reach a climax before settling down as we’ve finished our travels and come to our destination. It is both accessible and pleasant while also being musically interesting, a rare feat. That charming theme is reinstated throughout the film, which balances orchestrated moments with synthesized ones. It would be appropriate, also, to mention the presence of John Denver’s “Country Roads”, which plays an important role in the film. I would have scoffed at the idea, but it works so perfectly in the film that any complaint I would have had is washed away.
I must switch to a sadder note now, however, because I want to bring up the director of Whisper. While the screenplay and a few scenes are the work of the famous Hayao Miyazaki, the story itself was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, an animator at Studio Ghibli. It was his first and last film, as he died in 1998 at the age of 47. Seeing the magnificent work he did in this film, we can only mourn the passing of such a talented person with only one opportunity to contribute to a project on this scale, as a director.
It’s partly because of wanting to keep Kondo’s work alive that I frequently recommend this film to anyone who will listen. As I grow older and become more skeptical and critical, I have found that less and less anime appeal to me. Many anime I liked when I was younger feel clichéd and thin when I rewatch them, but this hasn’t happened with Whisper. It feels just as compelling as it did when I first watched it. This is real storytelling and the product of hard work and love for animation. Whisper of the Heart doesn’t try to do anything revolutionary – it just delivers a near-perfect coming of age story – a true piece of art.
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