Reviewing Ghibli: Whisper of the Heart (or: Ghibli’s stealth masterpiece)

I love Studio Ghibli. I’m going to attempt to review all their movies in the coming weeks, starting with their most understated work of genius: “Whisper of the Heart.”

Has there ever been so animated a character as Shizuku, the teenage protagonist of this gem of a movie? Well, yes. By almost any standard of animation, there have been characters vote actively animated, more detailed, more vibrantly moving, more adverbally verbing than Shizuku. Let me rephrase: has a character ever seemed more unbound from animation than her? In a film with virtually action, Shizuku is constantly in motion, usually entirely on her own accord.

One of Yoshifumi Kondo’s most ingenious decisions as director of this film was to never let Shizuku, especially her face, remain still. She’s allowed to shift from a split second of annoyance to beaming with excitement in the amount of time that’s damn realistic for a teenager (i.e., about two hundredths of a second or so). Animated characters, as an understandable requirement of a medium that requires immense work for even a second of film (be it hand drawn, stop-motion, or CGI) animated characters are typically purely responsive. They react. That’s how we glean their emotions. Subtler personality exposition is usually not necessary to make an enjoyable film, and the best of, say, Pixar’s crop of films can add layers through increasingly sophisticated storytelling and character interactions.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with characters having a 1:1 relationship between their visible emotions and the visible causes for said emotions. But it’s pretty wonderful that “Whisper of the Heart” breaks this mold, with a character who is responding to both her environment and her feelings, not the requirements of the plot. It makes the film, whose story might be the simplest of any Ghibli film, feel deep and true, and prevents it from stretching its story too thinly.

Shizuku isn’t just a conduit for the story. You follow the story because you’re invested in her. “Whisper of the Heart” is one of the warmest films in the Ghibli canon, beaten perhaps only by “Ponyo”. There are no great perils here; only those of the teenage heart. The opening shots are so cozy and beautiful that they move me to tears. They invoke Woody Allen’s legendary opening of “Manhattan”, which juxtaposed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with shots of the Manhattan skyline, creeping closer into Central Park, Broadway, weaving into and out of the streets. “Whisper of the Heart”, of course, opens with Olivia Newton John’s cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads”. A seemingly disastrous combo of corniness, but damn, that sweeping chorus, coupled with some gorgeous drawings of a Tokyo skyline at night, slowly closing in on the modest apartment where Shizuku lives with her family, make for one of the most beautiful and inviting of animated opening sequences.

If “Manhattan’s” opening is cinematic tiramisu, “Whisper of the Heart’s” is a big bowl of ice cream.

(Sadly, I can’t embed from Veoh, but you can watch the opening of the film here.)

It’s so damn easy to just fall into this movie. Its rhythms are familiar, but the tune seems drawn from real life. The romantic primary story is barely a romance at all. Half of it is Shizuku fantasizing about meeting the boy of her dreams, the one who reads all the same library books as she, all the while avoiding this classmate of hers who pisses her off. Naturally, they’re the same person. Again, the beat is familiar. But the characters (both Shizuku and Seiji, the boy) and the world they inhabit (supporting cast included) are so natural, so realistic, that the film never falls back on relying on cliches to drive the story. The characters are why we are watching. We want them to be happy.

This is a film of moments that don’t telegraph their point. Many scenes happen for the sake of making the film’s world a little bigger, a little wider, a little more realized. A side plot involving a romance between two of Shizuku’s friends at school is entirely unnecessary from a plot perspective. But it serves the storytelling very well. It juxtaposes comparative lack of maturity of Shizuku’s friends with she and Seiji. It shows how damn serious first loves can be (from the teenage perspective). And yeah, it leads to some great, funny little throwaway scenes, like when Shizkuku mouths silent insults at her best friend’s crush during class. Life isn’t on a plot line. Shizuku’s life, as a whole, IS the film’s plot. Little details add to its realism.

Two scenes do diverge from this sense of realism, and somehow, they both end up working. First is the scene where Shizuku and Seiji end up singing “Country Roads” together at his grandfather’s shop. Everything about this scene should be a disaster. The song is corny. The situation is corny. It shouldn’t work. It does.

Why? The scene didn’t feel shoehorned, as musical sequences usually are. In “Once”, when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sing “Falling Slowly” in a music shop, we don’t think for a moment that they’re there for any other reason than for the film to feature “Falling Slowly”. I’m not dissing “Once,” of course. It’s magnificent film, and the scene works because “Falling Slowly” is one of the best cinematic songs of all time, and the song itself is an act of superb storytelling within the film. It’s just that getting there took some gentle force feeding. Once the food was down, the earnestness of the performance made it work beautifully.

True earnestness is hard to do well in film and impossible to fake. When it’s faked, it’s impossible to stomach, like an emotional uncanny valley.

But characters who are believably earnest give freedom to the story. Suddenly they can act and speak as if it comes directly from their hearts. We no longer sense the beats of plot when we believe the characters are acting on their own motivations. “Whisper of the Heart” couldn’t afford to have this scene force-fed, because this song was not meant to be a showstopper.

And the conversation leading up to the song is just perfect. Teenagers are so rarely allowed to talk to each other like teenagers in movies. “Whisper of the Heart” captures a side to teenage conversation that films rarely do: that single-minded, earnest directness that dissipates around the college years, and the little verbal mazes you navigate when you realize you like someone but don’t know how to tell them just yet. Shizuku and Seiji’s conversations are never romantic proclamations and heavy handed plot obligation. Their bickerings at the beginning of the movie are not just a meet cute. They’re honest moments. Seiji rudely (good naturedly, but rudely) picks apart Shizuku’s translation of “Take Me Home Country Roads”. Shizuku considers it a grave insult and decides to make an “enemy” of Seiji. Even when they begin to like each other, they both keep their defenses up; him with his guarded personality and self-deprication, she with the leverage she has on him for what he said to her before he began to like her. The song is an organic result of their conversation, and it feels like a release for both of them (for him, because he’s falling for her and wants make up for his rudeness to her before, and for her because it’s a rare moment of completely letting go of her self-consciousness).

The result is a joyful scene that somehow isn’t treacly.

(same story with Dailymotion. Here’s the  the link to scene)

The ending of “Whisper of the Heart” is much-debated. I won’t spoil it here, but my here’s my general view on it: whatever message Miyazaki was trying to send, I think it is overcome entirely by the delivery of the lines as directed by Kondo and delivered by the actors. It comes off as two teenagers who think a little too highly of themselves doing just that, one last time. And I don’t hold it against them. Their earnest high standards are part of what make them so lovable. (thanks to oh-totoro, kikaider and evanjellion for the gifs!)

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

4 responses to “Reviewing Ghibli: Whisper of the Heart (or: Ghibli’s stealth masterpiece)”

  1. Isaac says :

    Wonderful review of Whispers. I was completely surprised by how good it was when I first watched it on Turner Movie Classics’ tribute to Miyazaki more than six years ago. You’re right, it’s so cheesy – it really shouldn’t work. But it has so much heart that it just does, somehow.

  2. Nicole McLernon says :

    Adding this to the list of films that I need to see… Can’t wait for your review of Howl. 🙂

  3. johnmichaelmaximilian says :

    I think you’ll enjoy it, Nicole! It’s one of the most underrated movies.

    Isaac: Thanks! 🙂

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