The most Studio Ghibli moment of all is not what you think
The single most Studio Ghibli moment of all Studio Ghibli moments occurs in Whisper of the Heart. It’s not a moment of artistic splendor or imaginative wonder, but a throwaway line by a girl who’s mad at her dad.
It occurs when Shizuku is at her best friend Yuko’s house. They are about to discuss some major boy troubles. Yuko glances at her dad sitting in the living room. He greets them cheerfully. She whispers to Shizuku “we’re not speaking,” or something to that effect, while the dad appears to be utterly oblivious to this apparent tension with his daughter.
I think about this moment, in the context of cinematic world building, a lot. Yuko is a secondary character in this film. She has some key scenes, a minor arc of her own, but it’s all backup to Shizuku’s goings-on. Yuko’s dad never appears again. It’s a throwaway line of dialogue with absolutely no bearing on the plot. And yet it packs a lot of information that gets us thinking about these characters.
Is Yuko playing up her conflict with her dad? Or maybe she has a strained relationship with her dad, and this is a regular occurrence? We never know: the film doesn’t linger on the dialogue. Shizuku also doesn’t have anything to say about it.
But also consider that Shizuku and Yuko are best friends. The line is the sort of thing people actually say to their friends that rarely ends up in movies. Normally, such a line would have to be followed up in the story. Chekov talked about guns but we apply to the rule to just about everything. Instead, its passivity is actually a very subtle indication of Yuko’s comfort in talking to Shizuku.
Studio Ghibli films are regularly marvels of packing a lot of information in small packages; one of my main gripes with the English dubs is how often they fill silent moments with unnecessary verbal exposition. The films are masterpieces of less-is-more storytelling. This scene is not important at all to the plot. But Yoshifumi Kondo and Hayao Miyazaki obviously saw it as a moment to flesh out this world, a chance to know these characters a little but more.
In Miyazaki’s fantasy films, he fills the screen to the brim with detail, often hiding incredible works of art on the outer edges where we might never notice them. Isao Takahata’s masterpieces of quiet real-life, Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, are full of moments that show that there is no better way to learn about someone than to see what they do when nothing else is happening. In this contemporary film, one of the very best made by Studio Ghibli, there are no mythical monsters and sentient lamps to put on screen. But there is still ample worldbuilding to be done.
As I said before, Whisper of the Heart‘s drama is constructed entirely around the anxieties of growing up and realizing that you are going to leave behind all that is familiar to you. That Whisper of the Heart takes every possible moment to make that world as familiar to us as it is to Shizuku is one of its greatest strengths.