Released on: 15 July 1995
Starring: Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Jean Smart, James Sikking, Cary Elwes (English Dub)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
With my recent review of Howl’s Moving Castle, I noticed that my movie reviews come off as neutral at best. In my Howl’s Moving Castle review, I mentioned that Studio Ghibli is well known for its gorgeous art style and beautiful world-building. There are a lot of well known Ghibli movies, but today, I wanted to take a look at a film that I don’t see discussed that often when talking about Ghibli movies. With Studio Ghibli movies coming to Netflix (in Canada,) I recently saw Whisper of the Heart and wanted to talk about it since I’ve been thinking about it lately. Is Whisper of the Heart an underrated gem?
Based on a manga called Mimi wo Sumaseba (耳をすませば) (“If You Listen Closely” in English,) Whisper of the Heart tells the story of Shizuku, a girl who loves books. So much so that she spends the vast majority of the movie’s first act in the library. She notices on the check out card in the back of each book; they were all previously checked out by one Seiji Amasawa. Being the inquisitive girl that she is, she sets out to find this Mr. Amasawa. The plot of Whisper of the Heart is straightforward and on-point for slice-of-life movies/anime. I tend to be particular when it comes to slice-of-life animes, so my interest in Whisper of the Heart’s story is nothing short of miraculous. Whisper of the Heart starts slow, but it gets going by the end of the first act. Shizuku’s curiosity is endearing, her perspective on the world is told beautifully by the beautiful visuals, and her story had me by the heartstrings for the majority of the movie.
Being a Studio Ghibli film, it should come as no surprise to hear that the movie looks fantastic. Whisper of the Heart makes the city landscape look mesmerizing. I love how Ghibli takes something as innocuous as a friendly neighborhood and makes it look so vibrant and colorful. Even during the slower parts of the movie, the audience can still get lost in Whisper of the Heart’s wonderous scenery. Everything from the buildings off in the distance, to the suburbs and even the country all have that Ghibli charm that I can’t get enough.
This feels weird for me to include in a movie review, but one of my favorite aspects of Whisper of the Heart is its soundtrack. At the beginning of the movie, we have the song “Country Roads” (by John Denver) as the first thing we hear. At first, I was taken aback. I thought: “Country Roads? Really? That came out of nowhere…” After seeing the movie, however, it became quite clear that the song is invocative of the theme of the film. What’s more, the movie features the Japanese version of Country Roads that has the total opposite meaning to the original, but it also fits the movie’s theme and where the characters are in their lives when the song plays. I can’t recall the last time a song was so brilliantly chosen for a movie.
Possible spoilers ahead. Reader discretion advised
Whisper of the Heart ended up hitting me much closer to home than I was expecting. Shizuku is at a point of uncertainty in her life. She ends up meeting Seiji Amasawa. Seiji has a talent for making violins and playing them too. He and Shizuku start connecting on a more personal level, and they become friends. Seiji’s goal in life is to study in Italy to become a world-class violin maker. This inspires Shizuku to follow a similar dream to become a writer. She ends up working tirelessly on her story, which starts to interfere with her studies. So much so that she thinks about dropping out of school to pursue her writing, which is enormous. Her sister keeps telling her that if her writing doesn’t take off, she won’t have an education to fall back on, which puts even more pressure on her. Despite knowing her way around a good story, she also often doubts herself and her writing ability. All of those things, understandably, weigh heavy on her mind. As someone who enjoys writing as a hobby and deals with the feeling of self-doubt, I relate to Shizuku. At some point in their lives, I feel everybody found themselves not knowing if they are taking the right path, where they’re going, or heck, even who they are. I know I’ve felt this way about life more than once, not just in my teen years, but in my adult life as well. These feelings are difficult to put into words, which is why Whisper of the Heart spoke to me on a profoundly emotional level.
One tidbit I like about Whisper of the Heart is that the story Shizuku writes was made into a spin-off movie called “The Cat Returns.” There is also a manga adaptation of “The Cat Returns” called “Neko no Ongaeshi (猫の恩返し” or “The Cat’s Repayment” in English. While it doesn’t have any of the characters from Whisper of the Heart (other than the Baron and Muta, the cat Shizuku finds in the movie), it’s impressive that Shizuku’s story in Whisper of the Heart became its own thing.
End of possible spoiler section
I guess my most significant criticism for Whisper of the Heart would be its slower pace. Those looking for a fast-paced adventure filled with mystical creatures, magic, and a grandiose story might be left wanting. Had I watched Whisper of the Heart when I was much younger and unfamiliar with Ghibli movies, I might have a different opinion of it. Now that I’m older and have gone through my share of life events, I feel like I can appreciate slower-paced movies like this. That said, it does take time for the film to get started at the beginning.
I didn’t expect to like Whisper of the Heart as much as I did, but alas, it is in my top five favorite Ghibli movies. The story is wonderfully charming; it explores its themes brilliantly with excellent song choice and magnificent visuals. I would highly recommend Whisper of the Heart to those who like slow-paced slice-of-life movies that explore the age-old questions of: “Where am I going?” and “What should I do with my life?”