Anime Feature Film Review – Whisper of the Heart (1995)
by HELEN GEIB
The anime feature Whisper of the Heart, directed by Yoshifumi Kondo from a script by Hayao Miyazaki (based on a manga series by Aoi Hiragi), is the coming of age story of a girl named Shizuku. Shizuku lives with her parents and older sister in an apartment in Tokyo. She attends school, reads a lot (she’s a real bookworm), and hangs out with her best friend. When she can tear herself away from her beloved books, she studies for her high school entrance exams. She meets a boy who becomes her first love and forms a friendship with the boy’s grandfather, an old man who owns a curio shop filled with wondrous objects.
Shizuku looks, thinks, and acts like a normal 14 or 15 year old and has the familiar concerns of a girl that age: liking a boy; daydreaming at school; putting off homework and chores to play, which in her case means to read; trivial family squabbles. However, thanks to Japan’s educational system she also grapples with big life questions that American teenagers typically don’t face for three or four more years. The final stage of secondary education in Japan is roughly equivalent to high school in America, but is not mandatory schooling and is governed by an admissions process comparable to applying to a good college. Not only does this put great pressure on Shizuku to excel academically and do well on the admissions tests, it also forces the question: what am I going to do with my life?
Popular culture so often reduces girls’ lives to romantic longings that any film that gives its heroine dreams and aspirations is near to my heart. Shizuku falls in love, yes, but she also discovers her avocation as a novelist. The process of discovery is the film’s dominant plotline, and is especially well executed by the screenplay. Shizuku is inspired by a European cat figurine in the curio shop to write a fantasy featuring “the Baron” searching for his lost love; as she writes it her tale is animated in sequences interspersed with the main story. Delightful in itself, the fantasy story-within-the-story is a credible expression of Shizuku’s emotional development. Likewise, the real-world consequences of her total immersion in the process of creation – dreaming, researching, and writing – is sensitively and credibly developed.
Whisper of the Heart is in many ways an exemplary young adult film. Character designs and characterizations of both teenagers and adults are realistic. So too are the family and social dynamics. Shizuku is a sympathetic heroine and her family and friends are likable people. Her situation is universal and her emotions easy to relate to. The film raises meaningful issues and explores them with appropriate seriousness.
There’s so much that’s admirable about this film that I almost feel guilty that I didn’t enjoy it more. It’s not that it isn’t a good film. It is a good film with good values. It isn’t excessively worthy and it isn’t preachy in delivering its messages. The film’s main handicap is that its principal merit is its story, and the story’s principal appeal is to the target young adult demographic. Whisper of the Heart deserves a strong recommendation as a family film, especially for families with young teens, but it doesn’t break out of this niche to appeal to a wider audience.
Although the character designs are appealing, on the whole the animation is executed with care but unmemorable. The residential Tokyo setting is realistically drawn; appropriate to the tenor of the story, but not particularly interesting visually. The memorable exception is Shizuku’s fantasy story, with backgrounds from drawings by a Japanese surrealist painter. The pacing is, well, slow; comedy scenes are welcome but few. A rotund cat, a veritable feline among felines that allows several households the privilege of feeding it and travels between them on the subway, is a whimsical highlight.
The Cat Returns (semi-sequel to Whisper of the Heart)