Movie Review – Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo

Despite the marketing art, Whisper of the Heart is not a movie about a young girl and a magical talking cat. Instead, it is a very grounded coming of age movie about the transition from childhood into young adulthood. It was also one of the rare Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That honor went to Yoshifumi Kondo, who was seen as the natural successor to Miyazaki and was groomed to take over Ghibli when the founder eventually receded into a different role or retired. But that wasn’t to be, and in 1998, Kondo died suddenly from an aneurysm, which led to Miyazaki retiring temporarily from filmmaking. Such tragedy surrounding Whisper of the Heart makes is an even more bittersweet meditation on fragile our lives can be.

Shizuku is a 14-year-old student studying for her entry into high school after the summer passes. She isn’t as interested in her studies as she is in reading novels and short stories she brings home from the library in stacks. Shizuku’s parents focus on their respective jobs and university classes, living in a cramped Tokyo apartment. Shiho, the eldest child, lightly admonishes Shizuku from getting so easily distracted, but the young girl feels restless in Tokyo’s urban landscape. She loves the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and has even used its tune to pen the graduation song for her junior high class. 

A chance encounter on the train one day with a cat leads Shizuku to an antique shop run by a kindly old man named Nishi. Nishi ends up being the grandfather of a boy that’s been teasing Shizuku at school, but this leads to a significant change with them becoming friends. They are each ambitious about niche things, hers being writing stories and his making violins, and through those passions, they fall in love.

In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki pondered the struggles of growing up through a lens of fantasy and magic. Here the story is very much based on reality, with some light anime romance tropes along the way. Unlike other Ghibli films, Whisper of the Heart did not garner the same Western audience that the other more fantastic pictures have. I think this is for a couple of reasons. 

First, the movie is centered around daily life in urban Japan, which could be harder to connect with for Western audiences. Instead of taking time to world-build, Whisper of the Heart is very easy for a Japanese audience to enter. This isn’t the post-apocalyptica of Nausicaa, where audiences of all sorts would need some exposition to understand what is going on.

Second, I think Western audiences are deeply uncomfortable with films that earnestly present innocence in media. Since the 1980s, irony & cynicism have become such deeply embedded tropes in film & television that we don’t even notice them in America anymore. Look at everything from sitcoms to children’s cartoons to comic books. Characters that are naive or who earnestly want to connect with something larger than themselves, like the natural or the spiritual realm, are often portrayed as crazy & wrong in American media. To not want to ensconce oneself in corporate consumption is viewed as “wacko.” We like child characters who talk like adults and make wisecracks. Shizuku is not that character; she is a 14-year-old girl trying to figure out how to be in a modern setting when she feels a yearning for more.

You can easily walk away from Whisper of the Heart, thinking the movie was overly simplistic; the same could be said for Kiki or Totoro. But the genius of Miyazaki is how hugely profound themes exist at the core of these movies. I would argue Miyazaki has made the best animated films of all time in that they speak to every single member of the audience regardless of age, whether in allow a child to contemplate what their future will be like or to enable an adult to have wistful nostalgia about a time where they were coming into their own.

Whisper of the Heart isn’t just a romance story about two teens. This is a picture about how every person you meet has a rich inner life. The cultivation of that inner life depends on what happened at these crucial moments in their young adulthood. For so many, they have that spark squashed, it never is fully extinguished, but it can die down to the point you believe it is no longer there. By centering his story around Shizuku, we are reminded of how beautiful that passion can be. Miyazaki makes sure that there are no villains in the story so that even the parents feel natural when reacting to their daughter. Shizuku’s lesson ultimately is learning that life is a delicate balance of passions and responsibilities, that while we must adhere to certain tenets of modern life to always hold onto the principles at our core that drive us. If more people heard and listened to Miyazaki’s messages about young people, I think our world would be a much better place.

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