There's a moment in everyone's childhood when they realize they're not a kid anymore. They're not quite fully a teenager, either, and they're definitely not a grownup. Whisper Of The Heart is about a slice of time in a young girl's life, about half a year, when she steps over the threshold from one age to another, and for the first time gets some inkling of what she wants from the rest of the time she has in this world. When I first saw it thanks to Disney's home video release of Studio Ghibli's back catalog, I loved it then, and on rewatching it now my appreciation for it has deepened even further. It speaks not only to young people on the cusp of maturity, but every phase of life beyond that too, and does so with the sensitivity to human behavior and attention to real-life detail that the Ghibli films have long been masters of. When they talk about "a film for all ages", this is what they mean.
Edge of fourteen
There's nothing outwardly extraordinary about the life of Shizuku Tsukishima, aged fourteen, junior high-school student. She lives in a cramped apartment with her older sister Shiho, her mother, and her father. Her life is packed end-to-end with schoolwork, homework, and the chores doled out to her which keep slipping her mind. What with her father busy with his position at the university and her mother hustling to finish her thesis, Shizuku and Shiho do half of their jobs. It all contributes further to Shizuku's compulsion to escape through reading and writing, going so far as to check out new books when she has schoolwork and hasn't even finished the last ones she was reading. She's dreamy, a little self-absorbed, one of those kids who'll grow up to do great things as long as they can not get chewed up and spit out by the manufactured boredom of school.
One day during summer break Shizuku notices a curious coincidence. The same name appears on the checkout cards for all three of the books she's recently borrowed: Seiji Amasawa. Who is he? She can't help but fantasize about who this boy might be, and what a thrill it might be to meet him. Surely nothing like that annoying boy who discovered a mislaid sheaf of her song lyrics, or who cheerfully sasses her while passing on his bike. She still has the touchy, defensive pride of a preteen, the kind that can't see a tease as a sign of affection — at least, not yet.
Another coincidence enters Shizuku's life. During a train ride, her attention's captured by a fat, sullen-looking cat taking up a seat next to her. It doesn't seem lost; it actually seems to be riding — it gets off at a specific stop and darts through the station. Fascinated, Shizuku gives chase, and finds herself in an unfamiliar neighborhood at the door of an antique shop. The owner, a charming old fellow named Nishi, is something of a neighborhood eccentric: he doesn't even bother to open the shop half the time, since at his age he feels no obligation to do anything except what makes him happy. But he's happy to have a guest like Shizuku, someone so young and unjaded, who can appreciate things like the multi-years-long restoration job he undertook on a grandfather clock that tells a sad love story on its dial.
All this is water for Shizuku's dreamy soul. But an even bigger surprise comes when the boy that's been teasing her also shows up at the shop. This is, indeed, the Seiji Amasawa who's been reading the same books she as. At first she's confounded and upset, because she can no longer treat the name like a blank slate. This boy has a face and a life to go with the name, one she has to take as-is, and she's upset in only the way young people can be upset at how dashed her hopes have been for him. Why did it have to be this jerk? Shizuku's feelings about herself aren't helped by the way she ineptly plays Cupid for a friend of hers, trying to nudge towards her a boy who ends up blurting out his feelings for Shizuku instead.
What she really dreams of
Where the movie goes next with this material, though, moves it from being a mere frippery into something more powerful. The next time Shizuku comes by the antique shop and finds only Seiji there, she does something that at first seems against her best instincts, but turns out to be pivotal: She learns about him. She follows Seiji into the workshop in back of the store, and finds out about his ambitions. He's in training to become a luthier, a maker of violins, and his plan is to apply to a school in Italy that will take ten years out of his life but place him amongst an elite few.
It's all so far above and beyond Shizuku's experience, and she responds to it in a way that is perfectly in keeping with someone her age. She's determined to match his ambitions in whatever way she can, to be in her own eyes at least as much of a seizer of the stars as that awful tease Seiji is. Her emotions are so raw, so unexamined, that at first all she can do is be fueled by them into some wild stab at greatness. Despite the pressure of schoolwork, despite the hectic pace of her family life, she spends the next few months trying to write a story — a novella, really — inspired by a statuette of a gentleman cat in Nishi's shop. For the first time in her life, she has a goal, not just longings, and her ultimate realization will be to find how it stems not from rivalry for Seiji, but out of tenderness.
I have seen Whisper Of The Heart three times now, and each time I was reminded of how an analysis like the one I just laid out might seem mismatched by the actual ebb and flow of the events in the film. The movie takes a good long time to establish where it's going, and while I was not bored or stymied by this, I knew full well it was because I had an unfair edge. I'd spent a lot of time with other Japanese entertainments that take an unhurried and often nearly plotless approach to their stories. Modern audiences (and creators, and marketers) are trained to expect certain things at certain points in a story, like highway markers, and they get frustrated when a movie doesn't seem to be delivering on schedule. Where's this going? they say.
But none of that is an excuse for a story that is poorly constructed instead of just gently constructed. Whisper doesn't telegraph where things are meant to go in its story, because it wants us to be as much a participant in the discoveries made about the meaning of it all as Shizuku is. One hallmark of good storytelling is to show what's best shown and tell what's best told, and the movie shows us rather than telling so that we might better feel it instead of simply know it — the same way Shizuku herself feels so much and so keenly at her age. And in retrospect, I realize everything has a place and feeds back into the story in some form. When Shizuku has her first day-venture following "Moon" the cat to Nishi's shop, and takes in all the sights therein, the movie takes its sweet time with what happens to further underline just how out of phase all this is with Shizuku's life until then.
Loveliness for every age
The common cliché about Studio Ghibli films is that they are beautiful, and I suppose it's only a cliché because it's completely true. Heart has the same painstaking care applied to every shot as, say, Castle In The Sky, but not as a distraction or as a way to gild the frame. The beautiful things all mean something to us, because of the way they mean something to the characters in the film, too. At a couple of points the film delves into pure fantasy, bringing Shizuku's story to life on screen, but the loveliest moments here are not lovely because they are made of fantastic imagery; rather, it's because they communicate some basic human truth.
The best example of this is a sequence in the middle of the movie, among the very finest that ever came out of the Ghibli house, all the more so because it depicts something so simple. It starts when Shizuku follows Seiji back into the luthier's workshop — it's remarkable how a sequence of shots that show nothing but two people going around the back of a building and in through its rear entrance can seem as elegant as a Dutch Masters painting — and learns about his work. Here is this gnarl of wood; here are the tools he strokes over it; and now, at the end of all that, here's an instrument that makes music. On a whim, he picks up one of his violins and plays John Denver's "Country Roads" — a song she's been adapting into Japanese for a school event — and then, just like that, she falls right in next to him and begins singing along, bouncing nervously on the balls of her feet. Then Nishi and his friends enter, unpack their own instruments, and join in too. Watch Shizuku's face throughout this sequence, the way she goes from surprise (my song?) to hesitancy (can I rise to the occasion?) to confidence (I can be part of this too!). And also look at the way she nearly loses her nerve when Seiji and company enter the room, only to gain it back as she realizes they're here to support her.
The other cliché about Ghibli projects is that they are for all ages, and again, with Heart it's true in a deeper way. When I first saw the movie, it struck me how while it's chiefly about Shizuku and her movement across the divide into adolescence, it's also about every other age as well. Her older sister is navigating, in her own rough way, between the rocks from teen-dom to full-blown adulthood, and there's a moment near the end where she uses her newfound power as something like an adult to give Shizuku that much more freedom by moving out. Shizuku's parents are mired entirely in the swamp of adulthood — her mother in the struggle to prove herself as being more than just a mother of children; her father surrounded by the grind of his job; but both still capable of being parents when the moment demands it. And then there's Nishi, closer to the end of his life than the beginning, happy now that he has the likes of Seiji and Shizuku to come into it and receive a few of the treasures he has been saving up. There was a time when I would have identified most immediately with Shizuku, and even now I still do; how sharply and directly this movie brings back the way every ambition in our youth seems like it could let us close our hands around the world. But I identify too with her older sister, with her mother and father, for I've passed through or am now passing through all of their ages as well. And someday I imagine I will feel closest to Nishi, the one who has seen so much and has so much to give for those who those who ask.
There is a scene near the end that might seem strange at first, but for me is part of the overall logic of the way Shizuku's life has evolved by the force of her will, and another example of its attention to emotional detail. After many sleepless nights (and some missed homework), she brings the first draft of her story to Nishi, and demands he read it then and there. Then comes the moment that doesn't click for some: when Nishi proclaims it "rough, but good", she isn't elated; rather, she bursts into tears. But for me this made perfect emotional sense: at that age, we don't hear the "good", just the "rough", and any failure feels like heaven's vault falling in on our heads. But then he further explains how, despite the roughness, her story touched something: it brought back to life for him something great and precious he'd once had and lost. "Now finish your story," he tells her — not just the manuscript sitting on his desk with her name on the flyleaf, but the story that will be the rest of her life. Even if only in a whisper, her heart has spoken at last, and she has been shown how to listen for it.