Studio Ghibli #9: Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Going into Whisper of the Heart I knew very little about the film aside from some mixed reviews from people I know, so I was more than surprised to find out that the film is a mostly grounded slice-of-life romance film and not the fantasy adventure I believed it to be from the poster. So while I went in expecting a fantasy akin to Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle, what I actually ended up getting was a beautifully charming story of young love that also contains a really inspirational message about the drive for success.

The film centres around Shizuku, a 14-year old girl who spends most of her time reading, we’re not given explicit details about her grades but the assumption is that she does good enough at school but it’s clear that reading stories and writing are her passions. After her recent pick-ups from the library she notices that all the books she reads have previously been checked-out by a mysterious boy named Seiji Amasawa. She fantasises about who the mysterious boy is and falls in love with the idea of him. But after following a stray cat off the train she ends up at an old antique store where she becomes friends with the owner, only to find out his grandson is a boy at school who often annoys Shizuku. It is, of course, revealed that the mysterious Seiji is the antique-dealer’s grandson, who quickly reciprocates Shizuku’s feelings. But after revealing that he’s leaving for an apprenticeship in Italy to make violin’s, his dream job, Shizuku panics about her own future and dream career as a writer in the face of seeing Seiji making such large steps towards his own future, which spurs Shizuku to write a story based on the enchanting cat statue, named Baron, that is Seiji’s grandfather’s prize possession. 

Whisper of the Heart has the distinction to be the first theatrical Studio Ghibli film directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata, (Ocean Waves was a made for TV movie rather than theatrical release), and is helmed by the late Yoshifumi Kondō. Kondō was being eyed up to be the next face of Ghibli and the successor to Miyazaki & Takahata but unfortunately passed before he got another chance to direct. This is a real shame, because Kondō’s direction in Whisper of the Heart is simply incredible and shows how talented a man he was. The detail in the artwork is superb, and you only have to look at the detailing on the statue of Baron, especially his eyes, or the detailing of the illustrations that Shizuku uses as inspiration for her novel to see how carefully and meticulously the artwork of the film is. And that’s before even considering the locations and the gorgeous details of Tokyo, from the shrines to Shizuku’s house to the antique store, all of the locations have their own unique design that feel lived in and real. While these locations are envision beautifully in a sense of realism, you can also look at the brief moments of fantasy when Shizuku is envisioning her fantasy world, both when flying through the sky and in the cave of stones, or Nishi’s, the antique-dealer, dream of the past to show the versatility of the animators and of Kondō’s direction. Each of these different styles flow seamlessly into one another, each conveying a different ideal that plays wonderfully into the themes of the film. But even going further than just the design of these sequences, the way the animation brings these sequences to life in their own style is incredible, the movement is dynamic, the characters feel fully realised, there’s lots of little quirks that each character has that makes them feel unique and realised. One of my favourite moments in the film that highlights the impressive technical ability of the animators is when Shizuku is looking at the gem in the ore stone with Nishi flashing a light through it, the way the spectrum of colours dances across her face as she stares in wonder at the stone is simply incredible, and as the lights move around we see Shizuku’s face filled with so much expression and amazement it’s a truly wonderful scene.

The voice cast is excellent too, all of the cast do a phenomenal job of conveying their characters feelings and desire superbly. Shizuku is played as you would expect a young girl deep in love but who is also determined and scared of what the future holds for her. Her father sounds like a caring but somewhat exasperated worker, there is a deep care and profound sense of proudness that underpins his voice as he talks and genuinely listens to Shizuku. Nishi’s voice actor is caring, blunt and somewhat weary but again there is a sense of care and passion in his voice as he nurtures Shizuku’s dream and writing ability. I could go on but it’s suffice to say that the whole cast brings nuance to their performance that adds an extra human layer to their characters.

Is Whisper of the Heart a perfect film? No, it has many issues including some unresolved subplots that ultimately feel like filler and a first act that takes a while to find its feet. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s a beautifully written and animated romance film that excels at elevating the slice-of-life genre to new heights. Shizuku’s fears of the future and not being successful are easily relatable, and her passion and drive in both her love and her writing make her so identifiable to an audience of any age. Paired with a gorgeous soundtrack and renditions of ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’ that easily bring a smile to your face lead to an unforgettable experience that left me with a smile and an impression that only a few films ever could. 

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