Whenever we hear about Studio Ghibli, we always think about those beautiful, nostalgic, and fascinatingly magical movies; the ones where the settings are almost otherworldly but with just a hint of reality. Those films are animated with such mastery that every scene can be made into a painting and can evoke new stories from anyone who peers at it.
Some of the studio’s gorgeous epics include the ever-famous Spirited Away with its beautiful depiction of Japanese folklore. Chihiro, Haku, and all the peculiar yet lovable characters creatures of the film, the masterfully antiquated design of the bathhouse, and one of the most iconic scenes in the Ghibli universe, the train ride, make Spirited Away a beloved classic.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is another classic Ghibli film. A story of a boy meeting a mysterious girl who holds the key to discovering a mythical floating castle. Watching this movie conjures in me a childlike wonder with its loveable characters and villains, over-the-top chase scenes, and an iconic reveal of the movie’s namesake. Many references to this movie have been made by other Japanese shows. This just shows how greatly loved the film is.
However, nothing is more indicative of Studio Ghibli’s extravagant art style and imaginative settings and vehicles, than Howl’s Moving Castle. Sure, the story is not as linear as their other movies, but it’s not that bothersome due to its amazing music and heartwarming characters. Furthermore, Studio Ghibli takes the art style of Howl’s Moving Castle to another level of magical realism. Every frame of this movie can be turned into a painting and it would still evoke an amazing story from its onlookers.
Like with other movie studios, not every movie would be a grand, visually stunning, adventure. There would be mellow movies that will tell a simple yet profound story. These kinds of movies would take you from your fantasy inclinations and bring you back to real-life stories, and show you that real life has its own, unique beauty. One of those movies for Studio Ghibli is Whisper of the Heart.
In its essence, the movie is a coming-of-age story about pursuing your dreams in life. For our young heroine, Shizuku, who is still in middle school, she has no idea yet of who and what she wants to be. But when she meets Seiji, a person who already has a dream of being a violin maker and is taking action towards it, she becomes anxious about her own life. This film contains a beautiful story that anyone can relate to, for we are all striving towards our own paths, whether we are aware of them or not.
I have watched all the films of Studio Ghibli except the newest one, Earwig and the Witch. Even if I watched that one though, I am sure that Whisper of the Heart’s intro would still be my most favorite one out of all the Ghibli films. It starts with a lively version of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, then pans out into the setting of the film, Seiseki-Sakuragaoka. Even if I have not been to Japan before, the feeling that this intro evokes is magically nostalgic. The timeless 90s animation that captures the busy routines of everyday life, people commuting, crossing train tracks; and the exposure of other places during sunrise, like Seiji’s home, that Shizuku would visit later on; everything about this intro encapsulates the entire mood of the film.
After the intro, the song was sung three more times throughout the film. During those three times, Shizuku was at different places in her life. The first time that the song was sung, was at the first act of the film. During this part, Shizuku was still this innocent, carefree girl who loves reading a lot of books, even during the summer vacation. Other than reading, Shizuku’s talent for writing and composing was also shown when she met with Yuko, her best friend. They were on the school grounds going over two revised versions of Take Me Home, Country Roads, both drafted by Shizuku. During this act, we see Shizuku’s normal life. A life before Seiji, before the anxiety of not having a dream, before everything that happened in the film that changed her for the better.
I loved this part of the movie because it made me terribly nostalgic…again. I remembered all the non-curricular activities I did during my summer vacations back in high school, then meeting with my friends afterward to eat out and just talk about anything. The film did well in bringing out these feelings, these memories. Shizuku walking to school, a piece of beautiful morning music playing in the background, going to the library and talking with one of the teachers, then meeting with her best friend on the school grounds, with the athletes training just in front of them, everything in this act is lighthearted and fun.
That is one of the examples of how even in a simple, realistic, coming-of-age story, Studio Ghibli can still evoke feelings of wonder, albeit in a milder way.
The next time the song was sung was just a little bit after the first act. Shizuku was eating lunch with her friends when she showed them the lyrics she was making. It was still the same song of Take Me Home, Country Roads, but now, she improved on it. I always felt like this scene represented Shizuku because, like the new version of the song, Shizuku has changed as well, but she just didn’t realize it yet. That change began when she found a perfect place for a reader like her; a shop full of creative antiques and, quoting her, “a place where stories begin,” and she was right. It is a place where stories begin — for her. Many significant things that will happen to Shizuku throughout the film, will occur in that place, the Amasawa residence.
Just a few days later, in that same home, she had a real conversation with Seiji and discovered his talent, which was making and playing the violin. Along with this discovery, Shizuku also met again Seiji’s grandfather, who will be a significant figure later on. It was truly a place where stories begin.
During this second visit to the Amasawa home, the song Country Roads was sung again for the third and last time. However, the singing this time was completely different from the first two. Now, Shizuku sang the full song along with a handful of musical instruments played by Seiji, his grandfather, and his friends. I always thought that this complete version of the song was also a metaphor for Shizuku’s story. That’s because, by this time in the film, she has also completely changed. Her perspective in life has grown beyond. From the home works and exams in school, it was now finding out what her talent and purpose in life is.
From Ordinary to Extraordinary
The average viewer might think that a typical, school romance will overtake the plot from this point and leave us all with clichés. But no, that’s not what happened. Instead, the story became more interesting, more magical, dare I say.
Studio Ghibli never fails in making the extraordinary out of the ordinary, every fan knows that. That includes films like this one, not just their other fantasy films like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. One of the best examples for Whisper of the Heart was just after Shizuku sang Country Roads for the third time after Seiji walked her home. At this point in the film, where she completely changed her perspective, she finally started to search for her talents and purpose. In her case, it was writing.
The movie then shows several scenes from Shizuku’s story. What I find truly amazing about this act is the transition from fantasy to reality. When the beautiful music starts and Shizuku starts to speak out the lines from her novel, the movie takes us to an exquisite fantasy world of floating rocks and strong winds. After that scene along with Baron, the gentleman cat, the camera pans down to the real world – and Shizuku, running and being ecstatic about the lines she thought for her novel. What’s magical about this for me is that sometimes, that’s how writers feel when they think of a new story to write, even in my case.
A True Coming-Of-Age Story
There have been countless coming-of-age story films from all around the world, and I am sure we have watched a lot of them. Whisper of the Heart is one of those movies, and I can honestly say that it is one of the best films of its genre. This is not just because the artwork, music, and direction of the film are magical, but because its story is grounded in reality. What I mean by this is that anyone can relate to Shizuku’s story. It is a story of a young person not knowing yet what they want to do in life. Then, the character finds someone who already knows their purpose and is already thinking towards their future; which then makes the character anxious and confused about their own purpose in life. It is a truly relatable story not just for the young but for anyone.
Another thing I loved about this film is the fact that the main character does not entirely depend on their love interest. There have been numerous stories where, after the protagonist meets their love interest, they treat that person as a savior, someone who can solve all their problems. Whisper of the Heart is not of those stories. Instead, Seiji helped Shizuku find a new outlook in life and nonchalantly inspired her to find her talent and purpose.
Even though this coming-of-age film contains a love story, the plot doesn’t entirely revolve around the couple. The film focuses instead on the main character, on Shizuku, and on all of her thoughts, happiness, anxiety, and determination. We watched her journey from being a simple, happy student to being confused about her purpose in life, to finally having the strength to take action towards her dreams. It is a beautiful, timeless story that I will revisit over and over again.