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Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Why would Studio Ghibli’s 1995 anime Whisper of the Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba) – a film about a teenage girl’s coming of age while finding her true calling, as well as her true love – be the favorite film of a not-teenaged-anymore guy from Chicago? Because her journey feels truthful in the ways she approaches both new developments. In a world in which the hard work of defining one’s life often gets neglected in favor of pursuing a short path toward glory – on which we often value our achievements over anyone else’s – this Ghibli film delivers an honest look at the path toward happiness and fulfillment in a way too rare for cinema. There are so many reasons I love this film!

The plot follows Shizuku, the teenage girl, spending her time writing song lyrics and reading rather than studying for Japan’s notorious school exams. Her imaginative mind springs to life often: when she notices a boy’s name, Seiji Amasawa, appearing in all the books she checks out of the library she wonders who he is; when she notices a cat (named Muta) on her train, she follows him when he gets off at her stop, wondering how he came to be on that train. Finding herself in a beautiful neighborhood overlooking the city, the cat leads her to an antique shop run by Shiro Nishi, a warm and generous old man. Inside, she discovers a statue of the Baron, a nattily dressed cat with eyes that sparkle and change. There is also an old mechanical clock that tells a fairy tale in its movements. Shiro stokes Shizuku’s imagination by telling the clock’s story about a fairy princess and the young man who can only glimpse her true form at a certain time of day. The old man accepts Shizuku’s interests as she thinks no one else does. When it turns out that Seiji Amasawa is the Shiro’s grandson, the tale takes inspiring twists as they come together to support each other in achieving their deepest dreams.

Released in Japan in 1995, the story was based on a manga series, Mimi o Sumaseba by Aoi Hiiragi. It does not appear that an English language edition of the series is available at this time. Ghibli’s co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, wrote the script, but the film differs from many of the films he is known for as it is more of an urban fantasy. The fantastic elements only hover at the edges, rather than being obvious at front and center. The thread of the possibility of adventure, like Muta getting off his train, lures you into a world, not of ease, but of recognition of the fantastic possibilities surrounding you in your life. Recognizing the wonders around you is the beginning. Taking the road toward one’s dreams is never easy, but it can be empowering, fulfilling, and sometimes, if we have some luck, amazingly joyful. So yes, this film is a positive experience. It lacks the cynicism we often experience in day-to-day life (and on our screens). The film ignores the barriers we create to keep us from listening to what our hearts whisper to us about what we – not just want – but truly need.
In the unfolding stories of both Shizuku and Seiji, the film’s charms became iconic to me, and important enough to me to consider it my favorite film.

When Shizuku discovers Seiji making a violin, and that he wants to move to Cremona, Italy to learn more from the master craftsmen there, her growing interest in him also brings a fear. Seiji is so committed to his desire that he unknowingly makes her feel she has no commitment. She begins to feel she is just wasting her time. Though her admiration and fondness for Seiji grow, she still encourages him to leave in pursuit of his dream. He also encourages Shizuku, which she uses to become serious about honing her own craft. She begins writing with purpose: a fantasy novel based on the Baron. With Shiro’s guidance, her first draft is written; he convinces her it is a solid start, but to be a writer, she needs to polish her work till it shines like a gem. She is sad and exhausted, but smart enough to stay determined and work hard as Shiro suggests. When Seiji comes back a day early, he synchronically catches Shizuku looking out her window before sunrise. He tells her he has learned he might have what it takes, but not yet. He’ll finish school first and then go back for a serious attempt. They both understand themselves better, but also realize – subtly in her case, with raucous declarations in his – that their care for each other has evolved into a real love.


Corny? Yes indeed. But the truth of their relationship is one that rings true and is rarely seen on screen. Perhaps it is only through animation that such positivity can avoid seeming ridiculous, but there is no doubt in my mind that relationships only work if another’s hopes and dreams are fully supported. Even if one dream is more difficult to achieve than another, in the smallest attempts to keep it alive deep bonds get forged. Such deep support can truly be what holds people together. This film not only comes right out with this message, it charms you while it does. Do they seem too young for such a lesson? Perhaps, but this only makes the film more relevant to older viewers, while taking nothing away from the younger audience.

Another reason I love this film? It has one of the most joyful scenes on film, one that never fails to make me so happy I just marvel at it. On-screen happiness is never the same for everyone, so I understand if this just makes you roll your eyes. But for me, when Seiji plays his violin for Shizuku, playing the song he knows she wrote lyrics for, and pushes her to sing along with him, and then they are joined by the grandfather and his musician friends, the sheer joy in the animation and the soundtrack music is a huge pleasure for me – and I can honestly say the song, John Denver’s “Country Roads,” has always been annoying to me. Till I saw this film. Full disclosure: I take fiddle lessons, and feel predisposed to love the sound of the instrument, so when Seiji tunes up a bit before the song I’m already hooked. But the animation here is as buoyant as the music, and Shizuku, warming to Seiji’s supportive challenge immediately, just looks happy (as does everyone else in the band). I find it hard not to feel the same.

Though this film can get lost in the Ghibli catalog, it has an important place in the Studio’s history. Whisper of the Heart was the first Ghibli film directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It signaled a sustained future with additional directorial options. As the debut of director Yoshifumi Kondo, even though he works off of a Miyazaki script, he sets an early standard for a more realistic style of storytelling at Ghibli. His earlier work was as a key animator, as well as some directing experience, on Ghibli and related projects. It served him well, as the realistic narrative, with fantastic elements bubbling under it, makes the film a wonder for both the heart and the head. Sadly, Kondo passed away in 1998 from an aortic aneurysm, a condition that can and did develop and turn fatal quickly. Apparently, his death led Miyazaki to adopt a slower pace of work, and now might seem to be an omen of future problems with new directors at Ghibli. Though others have directed films (to great success in my eyes), the mantle of Ghibli that lies with Miyazaki and Takahata has not been passed on directly. Sadly, it seems easier to see an earlier end to the unique Studio Ghibli than we probably want.

I also want to mention the soundtrack for Whisper. Though Joe Hisaishi rightfully gets heaps of praise for his Ghibli soundtrack work (my personal favorite being his score for My Neighbor Totoro), Yuji Nomi delivers a really appropriate and sweet soundtrack for this film. As the first track, A Hilly Town, suggests, the score moves up and down, awash in piano, strings, and electronics, echoing the ups and downs in the lives of Shizuku, Seiji, and their classmates as they move toward becoming adults. And in the middle of what seems standard, just like Muta getting on and off a train at his designated stop, a surprise or two always pops up. It is well worth searching this soundtrack out if you enjoy listening to scores.

And now, though this review is getting long, it is worth noting another interesting aspect of the film. Ghibli produced a sequel of sorts featuring the Baron, Muta, and a young girl named Haru. This is The Cat Returns, from 2002, directed by Hiroyuki Morita. A full review will have to wait, but as a purely fantastical narrative, I like to envision this film as the story Shizuku eventually writes as she polishes her first draft into a more complete story. I imagine Shizuku and Seiji watching this film as they sit in a cinema in Cremona.