Whispers of the Heart – Review
Whispers of the Heart:
Original Air Dates: July 15th, 1995
Synopsis: Shizuku Tsukishima is a 14-year-old Junior High Student. She lives in Tokyo with her parents and her older sister. Shizuku is a bookworm focused on reading book after book and getting good grades in school. She’s done some writing, but ultimately it’s more been for fun than anything serious. However Shizuku’s life changes when she discovers that many of the books she’s checked out from the library were also checked out by one Seiji Amasawa. Curious, Shizuku sets about trying to learn who this Seiji is and finds herself discovering a whole new world of innovation and passion outside of her mundane school life.
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Whispers of the Heart is unlike many of Ghibli’s other, more fantastical films. It all but abandons the usual whimsy of Ghibli’s style in favor of a more subdued and grounded story, a tale revolving around a girl’s first romance and her own self-discovery. That’s not to say Ghibli’s style can’t be seen in the film and when the opportunity for the story to display some fantastical elements pops up it latches on with conviction. But the vast majority of the film isn’t trying to wow you with spectacle or fantastical animals and worlds, instead it’s focused on crafting the journey of a young, aimless girl as she discovers herself and her passion in life.
Whispers is slow, spending the first half of the film following Shizuku through her day to day life as she hunts down the boy who she’s discovered has checked out near every book she’s looked at in the library. It’s attention is squarely focused on Shizuku’s obsession in finding this young man and believably crafting the gradual love that blossoms between the two of them.
Your mileage will vary in how interesting you might find this journey of self-discovery and young love. At times Whispers strays into the cliched, particularly during a subplot involving a love triangle between Shizuku, her best friend Yuko, and a boy who actually has feelings for Shizuku instead. But these moments are fleeting and the love triangle is ultimately dropped in the second half of the film, along with the characters associated with it. What I find most interesting surrounding Whispers’ depiction of love is how it pits that journey, that exploration of one’s love and passion in life vs grades and school. At times it feels like Whispers is challenging the notions of Japanese society, where everything comes down to the almighty grade and schooling performance. Academics is put ahead of one’s own passions and love. By having Shizuku stay the course in pursuing her dreams, even when her family pushes back, it feels like the film itself is rejecting the very idea that academics should come before passion and love. The film isn’t so devoted as to imply that love and passion supersede academics, but rather that their importance is intertwined, equally important to a girl’s journey from childhood into adulthood.
Shizuku is crafted as the perfect character to explore this argument. She’s directionless from the start, unsure of what she wants to do with her life and gradually grows over the course of the film, discovering herself and what she wants to ultimately strive for in life. Unfortunately I find it disappointing that this self discovery happens to be based entirely on the catalyst of her love for a boy. Thankfully the film doesn’t have Shizuku merely decide that the boy is her only passion, following in his footsteps and supporting him in every endeavor. Instead Shizuku strives to be his equal, striving to find her own passion, her own abilities in life rather than merely achieve solid grades in school without any real goal or desire.
Shizuku is initially reluctant, depicted in her disgust for her friend, Yuko, who skips school during testing week because she’s emotionally wounded after facing rejection from Sugimura, the boy who was interested in Shizuku over Yuko. But Shizuku ultimately ends up choosing a similar path to Yuko, putting her love for Seiji, the boy she’s been searching for, and her need to achieve her own, personal goal, ahead of her schooling and endangering her fragile academic future.
The rest of Whispers’ cast, outside of perhaps Seiji, aren’t fully fleshed out. We never spend enough time with them to learn too much beyond their surface level introduction. Shizuku’s father is hard working, but a caring father. Her mother is a dreamer, pursuing her education out of passion. Or Shizuku’s sister who is a more practical individual, working out of necessity in order to one day achieve her own goals. If anything Whispers’ supporting cast is more there to act as windows into Shizuku’s possible future. They act as reflections for Shizuku, paths in life she could potentially pursue and gravitate towards.
The real meat of the story, however, is focused on Shizuku and Seiji’s budding romance. Surprisingly I found their romance almost wholly believable, a difficult feat for any two hour film. Shizuku and Seiji’s interactions feel real and despite getting off on the wrong foot it feels understandable that these two might gravitate towards one another despite their relationship beginning on rocky footing. Unfortunately the film succumbs to the need to tie everything together. Late into the film its revealed that Seiji has actually always been interested in Shizuku and him checking out every book he could was just his way of getting her to notice him. It feels too convenient and detracts from the idea that, despite their differences and prickly beginnings, they managed to bond and grow together. It’s an aspect of the film that I find too syrupy and sappy to provide anything meaningful to the rest of the film.
One of the more impressive aspects of the film is the sheer detail in the animation. Shizuku’s mundane world is realized with impressive detail, the same detail put into Ghibli’s more fantastical worlds and the same detail with which the film later realizes Shizuku’s own imaginary world as she delves into writing her novel. The animation is impressive and I think allows this otherwise grounded drama about teenage love to pop with life and hold the attention of less enthralled audiences. The music in the film also aids in keeping the story feeling grounded yet powerful, despite the sophomoric nature of its characters love troubles. It sells the more childish ideas that adults might identify as ultimately trivial aspects of life that Shizuku takes so hard.
The second half of the film changes considerably in tone and direction, becoming fully focused on Shizuku and her attempts to craft her own work. It’s flow is much more disjointed, and the passage of time becomes messy as we flip back and forth between Shizuku’s home life, school and her own imagination as she writes her very first work. This second half might make individuals expecting Ghibli’s usual style feel more at home, as it has a more magical quality.
The film introduces another element late into its second half, which I find as much a mistake as the reveal of Seiji’s own initial interest in Shizuku. It’s in the films final half hour that we learn the backstory to the Baron, the statue that acts as Shizuku’s inspiration for her novel. We learn the Baron’s past and the owner’s history in acquiring it. It mirrors the love story Shizuku wrote. I find it forced, an effort to lend more power and accomplishment to Shizuku’s efforts and eventual love confession between her and Seiji. But this idea is introduced so late into the story it almost feels like an afterthought, only made known to the audience moments before Shizuku and Seiji reunite.
My final issue with the film is specific to the dub, which takes several liberties with the film’s dialogue. At points Seiji’s dialogue is changed so dramatically it actually makes him less likable in the dub and almost hinders the believability of Seiji and Shizuku’s gradually budding love.
Ultimately I feel Whispers of the Heart speaks to a more creative mind, someone who’s struggled with the pursuit of their passions while balancing the everyday requirements of life and school. For people more focused on moving forward in the more normal confines of society the film rings less true and might feel a tough watch as Shizuku gradually puts the more practical aspects of life on the back burner. If this isn’t a problem for you though than Whispers of the Heart is bound to be an enjoyable experience. It’s a sweet tale that takes some time to get going, but once it does Whispers of the Heart becomes near perfect drama and criticism of Japanese academically focused society. It’s little wonder it remains one of the most beloved Ghibli films.
Whispers of the Heart is available on DVD and Bluray from Rightstuf.com