With the release of HBO Max, it’s a relief to finally have the Studio Ghibli collection readily available to watch. And now more than ever is a good opportunity to check out Ghibli’s hidden gems that often get overshadowed by their masterpieces, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. One excellent example is Whisper of The Heart.
If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli film, you know to expect some kind of fantastical elements like in My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. Whisper of The Heart doesn’t have that; instead, it stays grounded to tell a very human story about following your passions in spite of the fear of failure.
Released in 1995 with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki and direction by Yoshifumi Kondo, this would, unfortunately, be Kondo’s only directing credit as he died three years later in 1998. Whisper of the Heart tells the story of 14-year-old Shizuku, who has been studying non-stop for midterms like the rest of her class. She loves fantasy books and is always checking them out in stacks at the library. Strangely though, she keeps finding the same person has checked-out every book on her list before her. She eventually meets this mystery book loaner at an antique shop, named Seiji. Although they start out disliking each other, their relationship grows to mutual respect, and eventually love.
What immediately sets Whisper of The Heart apart from its other Ghibli contemporaries can be seen in its opening shots, as the audience is greeted with multiple different views from a busy Tokyo city. Unlike the majority of Ghibli films that take place in very rustic or rural settings, Whisper of the Heart is set entirely in Tokyo and it takes full advantage of that setting to breathe life into an otherwise concrete city.
We’re so used to the scenic countryside of Totoro or the seaside towns of Ponyo that a more urban setting feels like a breath of fresh air. Shizuku takes the train with droves of passengers, while time is spent in her family apartment cluttered by stacks of her parents’ books and notes, and we catch glimpses of nightlife from time to time.
Shizuku and Seiji’s relationship also feels very refreshing in how they both push each other to become better people. Shizuku greatly admires Seiji’s skill and dedication as a violinist and a carpenter. While not having any particular interest in the subject, having that passion and drive to do something and want to become better is something she wishes she had. So, when Seiji decides to move to Italy for several weeks to study under a master, this makes Shizuku rethink what she wants. She stops studying for classes and even considers not even going to high school so that she can dedicate herself 100 percent to writing her book to be more like Seiji. Even though she doesn’t consider herself at Seiji’s level, she wants to catch up and not let herself fall behind him.
There’s an excellent scene near the end of the film that perfectly captures this. Seiji is biking up a hill with Shizuku sitting behind him as he tells him he’ll work hard for both of them. However, Shizuku gets off the bike and starts pushing it up from behind as Seiji peddles. Shizuku then remarks that he doesn’t want him to do all the work as they both make it to the top.
This is what makes Shizuku interesting, as the film captures the relatable feeling of having a passion at this age. Maybe you knew what you wanted to do when you were younger, or at least, did something for yourself that made you happy. In Shizuku’s case, it’s writing. As she’s always loved fantasy stories, she decides to set a goal for herself to write her novel. But though Shizuku’s dedicated to finishing it, problems arise as they would with anyone starting out something challenging.
She shows it to Seiji’s grandfather, telling him she knows the plot is messy, the dialogue is corny, etc.. But Seiji’s grandfather gives some good advice, reminding Shizuku that nobody starts as a master at anything. He shows Shizuku a geode, reminding her that although she may seem unremarkable, there is something that truly sparkles deep inside her. “When you first become an artist, you’re like that rock. You’re in a raw, natural state, with hidden gems inside. You need to dig down deep and find the emeralds tucked away inside you.”
We may find that we’re not good enough — that we’ll never reach the same level as the people who make us want to improve, but as long as we work hard on what makes us happy, eventually, we can become better.
If you’re intimidated by HBO Max’s large library of movies, make it simple: let Whisper of The Heart be the next movie you watch. And when you’re done with that, follow it up with The Cat Returns, the film’s spiritual sequel.