Synopsis: Junior high school student Shizuku Tsukishima finds her life becoming increasingly mysterious when she notices that the same person is checking out every book in the library she reads – beforeshe reads them. Putting aside this conundrum, she attempts to write a song for her school’s graduation ceremony; but when she forgets her notebook on a bench and returns to find a strange boy reading it, who then labels her lyrics “corny,” she feels discouraged. Riding the train one day, she notices a cat on board, seemingly traveling all by itself. Following the animal out of the station, Shizuku discovers a magical antique shop which awakens her creative spirit. She meets the owner, a kindly old man – and his grandson, who just so happens to be the same boy who insulted her song! Learning that the boy, Seiji, plans to skip high school to go to Italy and train as a violin-maker, Shizuku begins to question whether she truly has what it takes to realize her dream of becoming a writer. Can Shizuku find happiness within herself, before it’s too late to find it with someone else?
The fourth film in my Ghiblithon (see the rest here) comes from director Yoshifumi Kondō; employed as a chief animator on five previous Studio Ghibli films, Kondō was the first director outside of studio heads Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to helm a Ghibli film. He was being groomed as a successor to Miyazaki and Takahata before his untimely death at age 47 from a brain aneurysm in 1998. Believing Kondō’s death to be partially attributable to overexertion in his work, Miyazaki initially announced his own retirement that same year, only to rescind his decision and instead plan to work at a less strenuous pace (Ghibli had been putting out a film a year from 1989 to 1995, with two major releases on the same day in 1988). While Miyazaki did do a little hand-holding by penning the screenplay, drawing the storyboards, and directing some of the fantasy sequences, Whisper of the Heart definitely feels like a different director’s work; while I think I’ll always like Ghibli’s Miyazaki-directed work best, it’s still nice to see other people try their hand at it, and Kondō does a marvelous job and shows a lot of potential. It’s just a shame he wouldn’t live long enough to be able to repeat his success.
Interestingly, Whisper takes place in the exact same Tokyo housing district which the tanuki in Pom Poko were trying to prevent. However this is more of an urban film, with no environmentalist agenda and only one talking animal (in the fantasy sequences), so it’s probably meant to be more of a coincidence than a direct connection. Similar to Porco Rosso, Whisper tells a realistic story with a concrete setting; it’s probably more realistic than Porco, in fact, because there aren’t even any pig-faced people in it. The concerns of Shizuku’s life – boys and school, chiefly – make the film superficially appear like your standard high school drama, but these kids have more on their minds than just acing their next math test. Shizuku is trying desperately to decide what she should do with her life – at age twelve. It may seem a little extreme, but high school is very serious business in Japan; no mandatory attendance in upper secondary school means very competitive admissions standards, similar to applying to college in the United States. Students who can’t cut the mustard (or choose not to) are tracked into vocational schools. Knowing this helps a viewer understand the conflicts of Whisper of the Heart much better, since the idea of “choosing” whether or not to go to high school might otherwise seem absurd to those of us who are used to it as a legal requirement.
While it derives its setup from formulaic romance stories, what I like about Whisper of the Heart is that it depicts its relationships realistically and examines them honestly. And it’s not a formulaic romance; it’s more about Shizuku learning to love herself, which is a way more original and refreshing message. I relate to this film so much, myself once being a twelve-year-old who dreamed of being a writer. Shizuku’s painful process of trying to write a novel just to see if she can and then being furious with herself when it doesn’t come out perfect on the first try is soooo… writerly. I would venture a guess that most people who seek to write fiction give up for exactly the same reasons; writing is thought of as an inherent talent, like rolling your tongue, rather than something one seeks to hone and perfect through hard work and making mistakes. Shizuku tries to work through that, just tries to write for the sake of experience, and is almost broken by the process. But in the end she finds the strength to go on, and the strength to have faith in her own potential, which is fundamental to ever achieving success. How can you ever reach your destination if you don’t believe it exists?
I believe this film takes a much deeper and more honest look at what it’s like to be this age than most other films aimed at this age group ever achieve. It’s a unique story using familiar settings and circumstances. Shizuku learns that she must be in control of her own destiny, and that she does not have to be a cog in anyone else’s machine. It’s a sweet story and Shizuku is a lovable heroine. We can only hope she grew up to be exactly what she wanted to be; if her resilience here is any indication, I’m sure she’s doing just fine.
Whisper of the Heart (1995) – 4/5 stars
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