Nothing says highly skilled animation studio like a slow-paced teen romantic drama.
“You need to dig down deep and find the emeralds tucked away inside you. And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve found your gems, you have to polish them. It takes a lot of hard work. Look at the crack in the geode”
“You see that big green crystal there? You could spend years polishing that, and it wouldn’t be worth much at all. The smaller crystals are much more valuable. And there may be some even deeper inside that you can’t see.”
Whisper of the Heart is the story of Shizuku, a young bookish girl who spends all of her time in the library, and with her best friend writing Japanese translations of American songs. One day, she notices all of the books she takes out were withdrawn by someone else: someone named Seiji Amasawa. She begins to daydream about who he might be, only to learn later on it’s a boy she can’t stand.
As this is happening, she also comes acorss an antiques store, run by a kind old man, who becomes a bit of a mentor to her. The antiques in his shop inspire her to write and before long, Shizuku has dreams to become a writer. She learns that Seiji works at the antique store and as they meet more and more frequently, they both put their guard down and begin to form a relationship.
Whisper of the Heart is one of several character-driven dramas from Studio Ghibli. The studio, best known for glorious animation, imaginative fantasy designs and its immense sense of wonder dials it down for this film and focuses its creative energies on making everyday life seem just as magical as the rest. Like My Neighbour Totoro and Only Yesterday before it, Whisper of the Heart tells a soft, slow-paced story that likes to take its time fleshing out its characters.
Firstly, there’s Shizuku, whose personality is quickly established at the beginning, but whose growth is the driving forcer behind the movie. She doesn’t drive the story as much as the story drives her; we see her opinions change and her life views mature as she goes through these last few months of middle school. Shizuku is a highly likeable character and as a result you’re happy to go through this with her. Chihiro from Spirited Away didn’t have to be the most likeable character because the environments and the fantastic elements distracted from that. Here, the whole show is focused on Shizuku, and she’s written to be relatable and deep from the first moment, which helps the audience get into her shoes.
Seiji, her love interest, is a bit less fleshed out, as is the the rest of the cast. This is normal, though, as the entirety of the story is told through Shizuku’s eyes. Seiji and the antiques dealer Shiro are the highlights, providing warmth and support to Shizuku in their own ways. Shiro’s advice to her can speak to all of us. They all serve a purpose though and none of them are annoying to watch. The interactions between Shizuku and her family are believable, as is hers with her friends. When the dialogue is natural, you’re more invested because you’re not constantly reminded that this is a piece of fiction. Hell, sometimes you forget it’s even animated.
The grounding in reality is where its biggest strength lies. While there is a fantasy element in the film, it comes from the book Shizuku is writing and is refreshingly brief. It may have been on all the promotional stuff and is the scene featured on the DVD sleeve, which is definitely false advertising in a good way. More than a scene or two with the cat would have ruined the small scope the film was trying to achieve. They’re reserved for select, meaningful moments in the film. If you love the cat character Baron, don’t worry, he comes back in the aptly titled The Cat Returns.
It’s occasionally cheesy – after all, it’s a romantic coming of age story – but those moments are interspersed throughout, stuck between moments of genuine emotion, and fit with the overall atmosphere. You get the impression that you’ve seen it before, sure, but never quite like this. Never with these characters. It feels fresh and stands out more than other similar films in this vein.
Sincere, romantic and full of hope, Whisper of the Heart never overstays its welcome; it’s charming, and sweet enough that you don’t tire of it before it ends. In fact, it grows on you the more you watch it. It took a little while for it to get properly started, I believe the antiques shop story doesn’t start until about half an hour in (and concentration levels start to falter), but after that, the film sails along smooth waters, never picking up too much speed, but never slowing to a crawl.
Verdict: With gorgeous art, compelling characters and a story that never gets too heavy, Whisper of the Heart starts slow, but becomes a sweet story about ambitions, dreams and young love.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Also known as: 耳をすませば (Mimi o Sumaseba) – “If you listen closely”
Director Yoshifumi Kondō
Writer Hayao Miyazaki
Shizuku Tsikushima Yoko Honna
Seiji Amasawa Issei Takahishi
Asako Tsukishima Shigeru Muroi
Seiya Tsukishima Takashi Tachibana
Baron Shigeru Tsuguyuchi
Shiro Nishi Keiju Kobayashi
Yuko Harada Maiko Kayama
Shizuku Tsikushima Brittany Snow
Seiji Amasawa David Gallagher
Asako Tsukishima Jean Smart
Seiya Tsukishima James Sikking
Baron Cary Elwes
Shiro Nishi Harold Gould
Yuko Harada Ashley Tisdale