Note: Eight years ago, I collaborated with my nine-year-old daughter Sarah on a brief review of an animated film starring Clifford the Big Red Dog. It seems like yesterday, yet here Sarah is about to be a college student. In fact, she's leaving us this week. Her writing and her critical insights have matured a great deal in the last eight years, and over the years she's tried her hand at a few more movie reviews. This one, an essay on the Studio Ghibli coming-of-age tale Whisper of the Heart, is, I think, one of her best; certainly the first review I wrote as a college graduate (for the Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy, as I recall) doesn't hold a candle to this. Sarah captures this film so well that I have nothing to add. Scratch one title from the list of movies I hope to review someday.
Whisper of the Heart
Reviewed by Sarah E. Greydanus
The animated films of Studio Ghibli have long been admired for their wild imagination, for the fantastic worlds and images they present. Examples include the exotic, staggering jungles and isolated cultures of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the elaborate da Vinci-esque technology of Castle in the Sky, and the surreal, haunting spirit world of Spirited Away, along with others that are less than masterpieces (the whimsical loopiness of Ponyo, the beautiful ruins of Tales from Earthsea).
Yet even at their most stunningly far-fetched, Ghibli films also have a history of celebrating the details of everyday life: cooking, cleaning, planting, studying, mending, become important and precious functions, worthy of devoted attention. Most recently, The Secret World of Arrietty infused the commonplace with probably unprecedented magic and wonder.
Director Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart may represent the studio’s simplest gesture of this honoring of everyday life. It moves and delights, not in another world or even a hidden magical corner, but amid the streets of Tokyo. Its heroine, a junior high school student named Shizuku (Brittany Snow), never actually stumbles into a fantastic adventure, but often feels as if she has. Perhaps a film like this, amid Hollywood’s current drive for blockbusters and spectacular epics, offers American viewers something they’ve been missing.
It’s another ultra-gentle Ghibli family film, along with My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty, but it may be more from an adolescent perspective than any of those. It is, however, quite an innocent, wholesome adolescent perspective; Shizuku and the other young characters are not “teenyboppers” nor has adolescence made them obnoxious, frivolous, stuck-up or any such thing. That alone is refreshing, on the screen or in reality.
Shizuku is yet another engaging Ghibli protagonist: bookish, impulsive, absentminded, imaginative, striving to find and develop her talents. She devotes a great deal of her free time to reading books, but also takes an interest in writing; in an early scene, she shows her lyrics to her best friend, Yuko (Ashley Tisdale). Shizuku sometimes suffers from doubts about whether her writing is really any good, but her rewrites of John Denver’s Country Road are among the things that make the film so memorable.
Besides being well-rounded, her character enables the filmmakers to continue some common Ghibli themes, notably that of wonder. Shizuku’s imagination is quick to be fascinated; when she notices a cat commuting on a city train by itself, she curiously runs after it, and her silent fascination at the place where it finally leads her is almost reminiscent of Lucy stepping through the wardrobe.
But Shizuku is also leaving childhood behind, and like many young people she struggles with the transition. “Why do we change?” she quietly laments. The little joys of earlier, simpler years are fading, and she’s trying to find a new inner balance.
With this growing-up period often comes youthful romance (though the romantic theme is as innocently handled as everything else). It first figures in Shizuku’s life when her friend Yuko confides that she “likes” one of their classmates; later on, despite her initial vigorous denials, Shizuku begins to be in love herself, and both girls go through some mental and emotional pains because of their affections.
Shizuku’s love interest, as it turns out, is similarly passionate and perfectionistic. His “dream” is to make violins, and not just learn the art but master it, a purpose for which he means to go and train in Cremona, Italy. Stirred by his ambition and commitment, Shizuku soon concludes that she, too, should try to achieve something beyond reading books and writing those lyrics that she still feels are inferior. Driven by both a desire to create something worthwhile and a need to prove herself worthy of someone more accomplished, she puts her imagination to work and again starts writing, this time to write her magnum opus of a fantasy novel.
Through all of this, Whisper of the Heart is frank about the weight of emotion that often comes with the loves of youth, whether of inspired creation or of another person, while also gently pointing to the most prudent ways of responding to…well, the whisper of the heart. Like the kindly old man who first appraises Shizuku’s novel, it is wisely understanding of young tides of enthusiasm or depression, of the delight of creation and the mistakes so easy to make when full of one thought or feeling.
The delight aspect is important too, and sometimes as energetically merry as anything from, say, Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro. About halfway through the film, Shizuku’s lyrics and the boy’s violin skills converge into a lively, spontaneous second-act emotional climax, starting out awkward and hesitant, but blossoming out into joy and freedom and a strong shared enthusiasm. It’s the only major musical scene I’ve encountered in a Ghibli film, but it easily surpasses most of the scads of songs in Hollywood animation, for both cleverness and spiritedness.
Family doesn’t play as big a role as in some of the studio’s other above-mentioned films, but Shizuku’s parents, Asako (Jean Smart) and Seiya (James Sikking) are both present and entirely sympathetic. The story is not primarily about their family life, so they get comparatively little screen time, but the film does clearly affirm the importance of their place in their daughter’s life—a place that, ultimately, friends can’t fill—and the importance of the family being together. This is especially clear when Shizuku begins to fall into some problematic habits; when was the last animated film in which a young protagonist “followed her heart” in a misguided way and the parents’ intervention was necessary and right?
Of course the animation is exquisite. Part of the joy of the film is that the details of each setting—from Shizuku’s apartment to the school to the little antique shop—look like they could be right from the real world; in fact, a few magnificent images could almost be live action. Watch closely for two splendid shots involving reflections in the windows of moving vehicles; the smooth, natural capture of light and movement is almost unbelievable.
The realism of the animation echoes the realism of the story. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is that characters and situations all ring so true, making the struggles and joys of a schoolgirl-writer vividly felt to the attentive viewer—especially those who are or remember searching for their own inspiration. In fact, when Shizuku and the young violin maker start to contemplate future achievements, one wonders if this is, to some degree, the story of where Studio Ghibli came from in the first place.