It’s almost sinful how little this movie is known or seen. There is no doubt this is one of the most emotionally intricate, beautiful pieces to come out of Ghibli, and modern cinema in general. As Yoshifumi Kondo’s first and last project after tragically passing away, there’s no doubt we preemptively lost who undoubtedly would’ve been one of modern cinema’s greatest directors. So rare is a first attempt so wonderful.
Of my friends who’ve seen this movie, most of them have complained that “nothing happens.” Indeed, the pacing of the movie is quite slow, and in terms of tangible, concrete happenings, very little does indeed happen in this movie. However, in an era replete with Disney’s incessant musicals and its brass-heeled ballads, Whisper of the Heart’s relative silence provides me with solace.
Thematically, Whisper of the Heart is, I guess, cliche. It’s about following one’s dreams and pursuing one’s passions. It’s been covered time and time again, by so many filmmakers, writers, and artists. Honestly though, I’ve yet to see the pursuit of passion covered with the same honesty and deft as Kondo did in Whisper of the Heart.
The movie is about a young 14 year old bookworm named Shizuku Tsukushima from a middle-class family in Tokyo. Shizuku is young and naive, but likable and memorable. She has latent ambitions of becoming a writer, but they’ve never really gained much traction. There’s a lovely scene where she rewrites the lyrics to John Denver’s “Country Roads” into Japanese. Her classmates heap her with praise, but our young heroine is a bit of a perfectionist, so she finds her lyrics still lacking.
What makes the film even more magical is that the entire movie is presented from the perspective of a child with superb accuracy. The confluence of moody lighting and a golden-reddish color palette only add to the warmth that Whisper already oozes in exceptional mass. It just combines to authentically recreate the same sense of wonder and adventure that our younger, pre-smartphone selves had when we were so adventurous. Whether it’s cleaning the dishes or reading a book on a warm summer day, through Kondo’s eyes, the ordinary is extraordinary.
Shizuku’s age is often one of great, turbulent, change. It’s reminiscent of my own days in middle school, where I constantly grappled with finding my own sense of identity among the emotional chaos middle school tends to be. Shizuku laments quietly about “why we change”; fading are the simpler days of a truly blissful youth as she struggles to find her new balance.
This period is often not without youthful romance, and she soon becomes obsessed with the idea of her own Prince Charming reading the very same library books as her, and as she soon finds out it’s also the same person she’s fallen victim to of playful banter.
Whisper of the Heart is a genuine look at the difficulties of the creative process. An incisive examination of the inadequacy and anxiety even the greatest of artists feel. And I’ve yet to see a film that so honestly and gently describes the lesser known facets of “following your dreams.” It’s not as rosy as Disney’s sagas would have you imagine, but it doesn’t have to be. Life is what it is, and it’s still beautiful.
Through its warm aesthetics and gentle script, Whisper of the Heart possess something sorely lacking in modern cinema, an enormous heart. The film is tantalizingly beautiful and immensely compassionate. It saddens me greatly so many people, even amongst Ghibli fans, haven’t seen such a humane piece. Yes, you’ll have to pay attention and take your time with this movie. But give it a chance, and I assure you it’ll wash you away with same, youthful joy you haven’t experienced since your yesteryears.
Whisper of the Heart (Japanese: 耳をすませば)—Japan. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondō. First released July 1995. Running time 1 hr 51min. Voices by Yoko Honna, Issei Takahashi, Shigeru Muroi, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, and Keiju Kobayashi.