Atop the Tama Hills of West Tokyo, 14-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima lives with her mother – who is finishing her degree – and father, a librarian at the middle school she attends. Shizuku spends the summer in her room reading books, or writing song lyrics, adapting “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to “Concrete Roads” to better suit her neighborhood.
Shizuku helps her best friend Yuko deal with a crush on a classmate, and endures her older sister, who returns from college and berates Shizuku for not taking school more seriously. Shizuku is more intrigued by her library books, which she discovers have all been checked out prior by the mysterious “Seiji Amasawa.” She sets out to find him.
One day, Shizuku notices a cat riding the train with her. It gets off at her station and she follows it, through a warren of steep alleyways and into a curiosity shop. Shizuku meets the shopkeeper, and becomes enamored with an antique cat figurine he calls The Baron. Shizuku discovers Seiji Amasawa is actually the shopkeeper’s grandson, an aloof older classmate who teased her earlier about her “corny lyrics.”
Shizuku’s initial encounters with Seiji are tense, but the more time she spends at the shop, the more attracted she becomes to him. Seiji toils in the basement learning the craft of violin making, his life’s singular ambition. Embarrassed that she doesn’t have a goal like that, Shizuku dedicates herself to becoming a writer. She starts staying up late, writing a fantasy story about The Baron.
Rumors swirl around school that Shizuku has finally found something she loves more than books. Seiji notifies her that he’s been accepted to a two month apprenticeship under a violin maker in Italy, and Shizuku’s schoolwork is put to the side while she toils to finish her story, and to find her life’s singular ambition.
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the manga If You Listen Closely by Aoi Hiiragi, Whisper of the Heart was Kondo’s debut film as director for Studio Ghibli. He died suddenly in 1998 of an aneurysm, which some felt was brought on by work related stress. This prompted Miyazaki to retire from animation, which thankfully, ended up being short-lived.
Ranking my favorite Studio Ghibli film of all time is even more futile than trying to rank my favorite by Disney, but Whisper of the Heart is up there. Instead of taking us away to a fantasy world, it takes place in a neighborhood like any other, tackling adolescent dilemmas – homework or schoolyard crushes – but with depth and character based humor that I rarely see in movies anymore.
The film is stunning, both to look at, and listen to. No detail is too small, from trains in the distance, to the pen cases the students snap shut, or the sound of cicadas in the trees. The sequence where Shizuku follows the cat off the train and to the curiosity shop sums up the movie. In live action, this might have seemed ridiculous, boring, or both. As rendered by Studio Ghibli, it uncovers a hidden world of the unseen and unsaid that never ceases to fascinate.
The ending feels abrupt and kind of silly, but the closing credits, which run under a bridge as the people of Tama Hills stroll across the top, reaffirm how beautiful this film is in capturing the rhythms of normal, everyday life. Walt Disney Studios dubbed this into English in 2006, featuring Brittany Snow as Shizuku, Jean Smart & James B. Sikking as her parents, and Cary Elwes as The Baron. This is one of the finest animated films I’ve seen.
“It’s rare for a film in any genre to valorize writing poetry and literacy, and rarer still for a film essentially about nothing to sport so many moments of genuinely fruitful observation,” writes Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central.
Daniel Thomas at Conversations on Ghibli raves, “This is just about the best coming-of-age story ever made, full of vigor and wonder, full of the spark of youth. I certainly can’t think of a film that is as dizzingly lovable and sincere as Whisper of the Heart.”
“It’s guiltless, entertaining, well acted, has a wonderful story, unique lore and beautiful characterization. Miyazaki’s to-be protege would have continued his legacy well,” says Cinema Crazed.