Ever since Netflix has added the majority of Studio Ghibli’s movies to their back catalogue, I’ve made it my mission to watch them all.
Whisper of the Heart is decidedly different from the normal type of Studio Ghibli movies. It was the first film not to be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, in his directional debut, after he was a key contributor to many Ghibli movies over the years. Kondo was originally going to take over from Miyazaki as the boss of Studio Ghibli, but unfortunately passed away in 1998.
The film centres around a young girl, the 14-year-old student, Shizuku Tsukishima (Yoko Hanna in the original dub; Brittany Snow in the English dub), a inquisitive and smart young girl, who is on the verge of figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She spends a lot of time reading books from the library, and one day, she discovers that all of these library books have been previously checked out by a boy called Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi; David Gallagher), who could well be her soul mate. Meanwhile, she chases a large cat through the city and she befriends an eccentric antiques dealer, who entourages her to write her first novella.
Whisper of the Heart is a really cute, sweet and lovely movie that feels remarkably different from the rest of Ghibli’s work. In this film, there are no fantasy worlds that the characters escape to, unlike, say a film like Spirited Away, in which the central character deals with her issues through a fantasy landscape. The film is instead, a much slower, subtler, and more melancholic film that sits mainly in reality.
Despite this, it does contain a lot of similarities towards a lot of Studio Ghibli’s work. The film was written by Miyazaki, and like the majority of Ghibli’s work, it is a coming-of-age tale. It centres on a young girl (who is her mid-to-late teens), who is growing up and discovering how she wants to spend the rest of her life. This is also about first loves and going for your dreams. The film is also quite realistic in discussing how each young person, when discovering what they are truly good at, have to make sure that they work hard to achieve this. It is wonderful to see a kid’s film that has a realistic message in how if you want to achieve something, you have to work hard to achieve it.
Also, Shizuku is a really great leading character. Like a lot of Ghibli’s heroines, she is cute, sweet and very talented. What is quite refreshing about her, however, is that she is also quite bratty, and not as “perfect” as some other heroines. Being a young teenager, obviously, she is prone to bratty behaviour and arguments with her sister, Shiho.
Her love interest, Seiji is also very interesting. If Ghibli are doing a love/romance story, then normally both parts of the couple are interesting and well developed (case and point in Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service). Here, Seiji is a very well-rounded supporting character, and is Shizuku’s equal in many ways. His backstory, in how he is a violin maker and not a violin player, is also very refreshing for a kids’ film, in how he doesn’t have the stereotypical “dreams” that kids normally have.
Also, like the majority of Ghibli’s films, the film is really beautiful. It is really dazzling, and in particular, the train sequences very much shine. Another highlight is the imaginary sequences, in which see elements of Shizuku’s novel come to life. The film’s use of the novel’s imaginary character, Baron, who would later be used in the 2002 spin off, The Cat Returns (also reviewed on his blog), is also very fun.
The only thing I’d say negatively about the film is that it is very slow. One of the many wonders of Ghibli films that, although well-made and beautiful, they are often exciting, adventurous and fun, and this film is a lot less so. It is not as perfectly put-together as some of Ghibli’s best movies, but it’s still a underrated and lovely gem. Middle-tier Ghibli for me.