More noise than signal

Whisper of the Heart

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Yoshifumi Kondō’s Whisper of the Heart continues the theme of rather more grounded stories, as for a while at least it seems like the main struggle in the film might be 14 year old Shizuku Tsukishima’s attempt to bend John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads to her adapted lyrical will. A studious child, she’s spent the bulk of her evenings checking out a procession of books from the library, and she notices that many of the library record cards (ask your parents) also bear the name Seiji Amasawa. She idly wonders who this could be, and hopes it’s not this dumb boy who keeps saying annoying smart-ass things to her. You may see where this is going.

Shizuku has a romantic streak, and so can’t resist following home a strange cat who’d been riding the train, leading her to the antiques shop of kindly old Shiro Nishi, home to a statuette of a cat named “The Baron”. Nishi also turns out to be the grandfather of Seiji, and the two youngsters soon become friends, bonding over music. Seiji’s passion lies in making violins, which leads to a bump in their path to a relationship when he decides he must try apprenticing himself to a violin maker in Italy.

While he’s off testing his talents, Shizuku decides to test her passion for writing, making the Baron a protagonist looking for his lost love in a fantasy setting arguably more common to the rest of the studio’s output. Her dedication to this sees her grades suffer, but in an uncharacteristically reasonable and relatable scene her parents, while concerned, trust in her instincts and don’t ban her from writing or anything melodramatic like that.

Eventually she passes her self-inflicted trial, and Nishi’s approval of the first draft seems to back up her talents. She returns to devoting her attention to her schoolwork, and before long Seiji’s back to deliver a happy ending that, if I’m honest, seems a shade too rushed and represents just about the only niggle I have with the film.

Studio Ghibli has no shortage of likeable, determined female protagonists, and Shizuku Tsukishima is up there with the best of them. All the more remarkable given that she has no supernatural powers, nor is thrust into fantastical settings, apart from the one that she’s writing herself. A charming and very human character, and the self realisation of Shizuku, and to a lesser extent Seiji, makes for a really pleasant coming of age story.

Of course, on a technical level it’s got the polish you’d expect from the studio, passing the high bars of animation and score that are table stakes for Ghibli but leagues ahead of their competitors, then and now. There’s not all that much in the way of drama here, to be sure, but as a relationship and character study it’s very good indeed.

It’s a shame when anyone dies before their time, of course, but in particular it’s a shame when someone like Yoshifumi Kondō, who to my mind had just proven he was a true peer of Miyazaki and Takahata, dies at only 47. Small consolation, but as a legacy, Whisper of the Heart is a better film than most directors could dream of.

Highly recommended.