Take a Drink: every time The Baron looks like he wants to snap your neck.
Take a Drink: whenever Shizuku’s sister is delightfully passive-aggressive.
Take a Drink: every time anyone angsts about boys.
Do a Shot Of West Virginia Moonshine: every time “Country Roads” comes on the soundtrack.
Finish Your Drink: when finally, finally the film starts dramatizing the actual story ‘Whisper of the Heart.’
By: Sarah Shachat (Two Beers) –
There’s a thing that comes either just before or just after or in the same catastrophic moment you figure out what you want to do with your life: it’s taking yourself seriously enough to start doing that thing. Some people make this look maddeningly easy, but director Yoshifumi Kondo and Hayao Miyazaki (working as a scriptwriter) know otherwise. Our protagonist, Shizuku, is on the verge of her high school placement tests. She loves to read and is kind of good at writing, at least according to her classmates. But like actually being a writer, creating and becoming lost inside fictional worlds? Ehhhh.
Welcome to Whisper of the Heart, one of the simpler and yet most beautiful Studio Ghibli films. Artists and especially writers will be suckers for this plot of a young person getting down to the awkward business of learning their craft, all the while dealing with school, family, boys, creepily intelligent cats, and a mysterious antique shop. Those last two are particular to the movie, I guess, but you get it. Apart from a fantastic dream sequence with Cary Elwes, there’s not a lot of magic or shenaniganry. Whisper of the Heart is studied and almost aggressively mundane. But, weirdly, those are its selling points. The film finds magic in the beauty of the world around us, in our inner lives, and in how we express our feelings to others.
This movie might be as close as animation gets to neorealist cinema – which I recognize is an odd thing to say without non-actors or location shooting or the usual film textbook hallmarks of that style. But Studio Ghibli in general, and Kondo here, are keenly attuned to a lot of the world around Shizuku’s story. That atmosphere is as much a part of the film as the plot itself. There’s a lot of “air time,” when the characters aren’t doing anything significant. They’re just being. We just see them in gorgeously detailed landscapes or warmly drawn homes with a level of attention to furniture that Dickens would be proud of. All sunlight must be dappled, all wooden surfaces must gleam. Shizuku’s family’s tiny apartment even has a cluttered charm to it.
Whisper of the Heart grounds itself in a realistic landscape of school jitters and boy troubles and biking uphill. In its way, this is an incredibly bold thing to do with animation, to have it be so measured and controlled. The effect is that Kondo is able to make a familiar world contain the beauty and drama and adventure that, at the best of times, we feel about our own lives. Hence the number of pauses in the narrative, the amount of time we spend with Shizuku traveling from one place to the next. The point of the film isn’t for her to find a MacGuffin or solve a problem, but to figure out what it even means to be herself. That happens in the spaces in between.
Taking that kind of philosophical approach to your narrative and art style is a rare, fine thing. But it’s a virtue and a curse, especially if you’re watching with younger kids. Whisper of the Heart clocks in at just under two hours. So do Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke; but the other gorgeously animated, more contemplative and less causally-driven Ghibli monster, My Neighbor Totoro, is under 90 minutes. Whisper of the Heart builds during the sheer amount of time it isn’t building towards a significant result, paradoxically, to a very satisfying conclusion.
But there are sequences that lag where they aren’t meant to, and contrivances which stick out too much because of the time it takes to process them. The repetition of “Country Roads” doesn’t necessarily return with new meaning each time it appears, either. That is how motifs become annoyances. I point this out, however, not necessarily because the viewer will feel this way about the film’s looser pace and more meditative tone. Whisper of the Heart could, from the very first instance the warm sunlight of Tama New Town hits a banister just the right way, also hit you right in the feels. But the film isn’t cynic-proof. It very much depends on the credit you’re willing to give it.
Whisper of the Heart is one of the quieter Ghibli films, lacking the sense of possibility and emotional resonance which color Miyazaki’s work. What it has going for it is a breathtaking eye for visual detail and a level of observation that really does put you with this young writer during a few formative months. That’s kind of a feat. But what’s actually impressive is everyone, artist or not, can connect with the film’s generous spirit.