Welcome back to Ghibli month! This weekend we take a look at Whisper of the Heart, the first movie from Studio Ghibli that isn’t directed by Miyazaki. Based off a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, the screenplay was written by Hayao Miyazaki and is the only film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo before his death in 1998. Watching this one after Castle in the Sky definitely helped me recognize a few differences in the way Kondo directs compared to Miyazaki, but we’ll get to those in a little bit.
For those of you who haven’t seen Whisper of the Heart yet, here’s a quick synopsis:
Shizuku is a bookworm living with her parents and sister in a small apartment in Tokyo. While checking out books at the local library, she notices that all of them have also been checked out by a mysterious boy named Amasawa Seiji. As she tries to imagine what kind of person this boy is, she encounters another boy from her school who begins to annoy her, calling the lyrics she had written for their school ceremony corny. On her way to the library one day, she spots a cat riding the train and decides to follow it. It leads her on a convoluted chase that eventually ends at an old antique shop run by an old man named Shiro Nishi. Sitting on one of the tables is a striking statue of an anthropomorphic cat with dazzling green eyes. Eventually it is revealed that the boy who was annoying her is the grandson of the antique store owner and is studying to become a violin maker. Shizuku is captivated by his skills and becomes inspired to put her own to the test by writing a book about the mysterious cat statue that is simply called “The Baron.”
There are definitely a lot of differences when you take what I talked about with Miyazaki’s style of directing and compare it to Kondo’s style. Though Studio Ghibli hoped that Kondo would become Miyazaki’s successor, his life was cut short in 1998, so this is one of the only works we have of his to examine. Maybe if Kondo had more time to learn about being a director, we could have seen some great things come out of him, but watching this one after a movie directed my Miyazaki, I just couldn’t feel the same impact so many of Miyazaki’s movies have. There was a definite likeness to Miyazaki though, probably having to do with him helping with the script and story-boarding, combined with the feeling of being a more laid back story as it focuses more on the slice-of-life elements that Ghibli may be less known for. We still get some of the same sweeping shots of the scenery and setting, but they come with what I see as a more toned-down art style that lessens some of that impact. We also have the similar practice of guiding the viewer through the setting as is done when Shizuku chases after the cat that leads her to the antique shop. We get a sense of how she exactly she gets to the shop, but I think there is still a bit lacking. Maybe it’s because too few of the shots during those scenes showed the backgrounds in enough detail. However, Ghibli’s recognizable style comes through when we delve into the imagination of Shizuku’s story of The Baron. It’s there we see fantastical environments and highly distinguishable characters. I’m very happy that they eventually went on to make The Cat Returns, which follows the story that Shizuku writes about The Baron.
One of the first things you hear when the movie starts is the opening song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It’s performed in English for the opening by Olivia Newton-John, but appears again and again throughout the movie in different forms and translations. It’s through this repetition that the song becomes a sort of anthem for the life and growth of Shizuku as the movie progresses. It struck me as a little strange that they would choose an English version of the song for the opening to this movie, with shots of Tokyo and Shizuku’s neighborhood in the background. It became conflicting tone-wise to have a very standard American song (which is also the state anthem of West Virginia) playing with equally standard images of Japan in the background. I’m still not sure I like it, but as the song is interwoven into the movie at various points, it starts to take on a major role in the story. If you don’t know the original, you should listen to it here before continuing. This song was originally released by John Denver after a couple of his friends came to him with lyrics they had come up with when driving to a family reunion down winding roads. They eventually combined it with writings about the splendors of the West Virginia countryside from another friend to form the song you know now.
Whisper of the Heart incorporates “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a variety of different ways throughout the movie, from the cover by Olivia Newton-John to Japanese translations to just the instrumentals to finally a parody song called “Concrete Roads.” Each of of these different adaptations come together to play an important role in the plot and emphasize important moments. The first time Shizuku talks about the song is when she is showing her friend the lyrics she wrote for a translation or an adaptation of the song they are going to be singing at a school ceremony. Her lyrics aren’t exact to the original, but they tell an important message about the point she and her classmates are at in their life and, in particular, the emotions that Shizuku is battling with as she tries to come up with an idea for her future. The beginning of her song reads: “I dreamed of living alone but fearless,/ Secret longing to be courageous,/ loneliness kept bottled up inside…” It goes on to talk about destiny and being scared to chase after it and finding a place where you belong. After Shizuku encounters Seiji at the antique shop and sees the passion he holds for his dream of becoming a violin maker, she is struck with the belief that she has nothing that she wants to do with her life, and how can she stand on equal terms with Seiji if she doesn’t have a skill that she’s also passionate about. We also see the trouble she faces with her parents after her grades begin to drop and they begin to worry about her not being able to get into a good college. But it is Seiji’s passion that sparks Shizuku into action to test her own skills by writing a book. This too brings the belief that she is not good enough, and I think it is only through the council of Seiji’s grandfather that she begins to truly believe in herself.
This leads us into another major message of the movie: that hard work will help you realize your dreams. Both Seiji and Shizuku don’t yet have the skills to realize their dreams and live up to the kinds of people they want to be, but they’ll never get there overnight. Seiji realizes this when he tries hard to convince his parents to let him go to Italy to study violin making, even though he won’t be going to high school if he does this. Shizuku comes to realize this as well as she spends hours at the library researching for her book, letting her grades wane as she pours her time and energy into finishing it. After finishing her book, she brings it to Seiji’s grandfather who reassures her that it is a great story and then tells her to keep polishing it to make it even better. The only way to hone a skill is to keep working at it, and by the end of the movie, Shizuku realizes she has much more she needs to learn and ultimately decides to work to get into a good high school to further her dream.
Another major part of this story is the myriad of different love stories entangled throughout. In the beginning we have the adolescent love between Shizuku’s best friend Yuko and another one of her classmates. This becomes a typical love story of boy is dense and doesn’t realize she’s in love with him and girl is shy and doesn’t tell him. It becomes a little more complicated when that same boy confesses that he has always had a crush on Shizuku. Now she has the conflict and subsequent guilt associated with not being able to return his feelings because her best friend is involved. It’s not like she was in love with him though so this love triangle seemed to be pushed into the background in favor of her relationship with Seiji. Even when the confession happened, it sort of came out of left field. You could recognize to a point that he was interested in Shizuku instead of her friend Yuko, but there was no real impact or lead-up to that realization.
Now the love story between her is Seiji is much more drawn out, but still follows a pretty conventional formula. Seiji is a typical male version of a tsundere, acting aloof or teasing her when he actually had feelings for her all along. It’s at this point that Shizuku has two different versions of the same person in her head and has yet to reconcile them. The Amasawa Seiji who has been checking out the same books as her is this smart and well read person of her fairy tale fantasies, but the Seiji who teased her about her lyrics and has been generally annoying isn’t someone she pictured herself falling in love with. It’s only when she talks with him down in his workshop that those two versions come together to complete the real image of Seiji, and he finally becomes someone who she can fall in love with. It becomes not only a story of the blossoming of adolescent love but a story of a young girl growing up and moving past the ideals she has built up from fairy tales. This naivete comes through pretty well as we see her comparing herself to Seiji and thinking about how she’s not worthy to be with him because she doesn’t have the same driving passion for something like him. But it is her relationship with him that forces her to test herself at writing, something she has never thought of doing before. I don’t know if I see this same drive going in the opposite direction though, as Seiji already has a good idea of what he wants to do and is just generally happy to be with her. Maybe it would have been better if we could have seen a bit of his time away from her in Italy. But then I think the focus of the story might have changed. People were already upset when Miyazaki added in the proposal at the end of the movie and claimed it was because he wanted it to end with some kind of commitment on their part. I don’t really mind the ending myself, I think it just reinforces the theme of young love and growing up that we’ve seen throughout.
The last love story – or last two maybe – is the story of how Seiji’s grandfather came to find The Baron when he was abroad in Germany. It was there that he met the woman he ultimately fell in love with as well but failed to see again. Shizuku senses that there is a sad story behind that cat statue, and she’s right. From the events that happen, I think I can place Nishi’s story at right before WWII. He was apparently overseas in Germany, I think studying, and one of his classmates was a woman named Louis. Nishi wondered into a cafe one day and found The Baron sitting on the counter. He tried bargaining with the cafe owner to sell him the statue but was ultimately turned down as there was another statue, a female cat, out for repairs that needed to stay together with him. Him and Louis would come back to this cafe day after day to check if the female cat was back, but Louis ended up convincing the owner to sell the cat to him and she would wait around for the female one while he went back to Japan. This love story winds up being two-fold, the plot of each intertwining with the other. Even as Nishi still searches for The Baron’s pair, he is also searching for the woman he never got the chance to meet again. A sad tale within a sadder tale. Louis is lost to him just like the female cat, and now Nishi will never sell The Baron until he finds the matching half, something that may lead him to the woman he fell in love with long ago.
However, I don’t think the main focus of Whisper of the Heart is its love stories. Sure we have the small love triangle at the beginning, her relationship with Seiji, and Nishi’s tragic tale, but all of those seem to be glossed over in favor of following Shizuku’s growth into adulthood. It becomes, in essence, a story about growing up and the discovery of passion and creativity. There’s so many metaphors for this throughout the movie that I really do think this is the case, but talking about them all would be another post in and of itself. So if you’re looking for more of a laid-back Ghibli movie to watch one of these winter nights, I recommend trying to find a copy of Whisper of the Heart. It’s not only a solid Ghibli movie but a chance to look at one of the only movies Yoshifumi Kondo ever directed. Have a great week, and see you next weekend!