By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers
I always return to Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart during the lowest emotional points in my life, specifically those concerning my career and life goals. I first watched it in high school, then in college when I was at a loss about my Major, and now after graduating, and nearing the age of twenty four. Thankfully, I’m in a better place and mindset as I’m writing this post, but I decided to revisit this movie to see how my current position in life offers a new perspective.
Whisper of the Heart is my comfort movie as the protagonist’s journey holds a mirror to my own insecurities about the future. In the end, Whisper of the Heart tells her-and me by extension-that everything will work out without being patronizing about it. Life is worth living even when unexpected obstacles appear, and growth is possible amidst doubt about one’s goals and talents. I also respect the movie for not lying to viewers about how difficult that can be, and for depicting the reality that everybody sacrifices something to achieve their dreams.
[Editor’s Note: Please assume from this point forward that everything–quotes, images, and summaries–in this post, unless cited otherwise, comes directly from Whisper of the Heart (1995). Thank you.]
Throughout Whisper of the Heart, people including teachers, family, and friends remind the protagonist, Shizuku, that she needs to begin preparing for high school and ace her exams. She ignores them and spends most of her time with friends or books instead of studying. More issues like a friend confessing to her, and her feeling directionless appear as graduation looms closer. Her sense of listlessness is shown as she doesn’t even like reading as much as she used to:
When I first watched this movie, I was confused by all these issues appearing seemingly out of nowhere as Shizuku’s happy-go-lucky layer peeled back to reveal a somewhat despondent girl. However, I think now that these issues are amplified because of how young Shizuku is-she feels more keenly in many ways because these issues are being simultaneously thrown at her during an already turbulent time.
The scene above and Shizuku’s sentiment about books makes more sense now, too. She invests so much of her time reading because she loves it but also as a way to avoid her responsibilities to family and school. If she loses that excitement, she has to face those responsibilities. I think many people can relate to also losing (briefly or permanently) that sense of wonder and dedication we have as kids to read a lot for pure enjoyment. It’s one line, but it encapsulates so much of what Shizuku feels and depicts the reluctance of growing up wonderfully.
These low points are balanced by Shizuku’s journey to take control of her life and to discover herself. She has a talent for words, first shown in her translating John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for a school ceremony. This, combined with her love of books, is the basis of her goal to become a writer and burgeoning relationship with a boy named Seiji.
Shizuku and Seiji bond over the same books and spend more time together in his grandfather’s antique shop. Seiji’s true love is the violin and he hopes to become a luthier (someone who makes violins) one day. He’s hard on himself and tells Shizuku:
This sentiment will serve Shizuku well later on her journey to become a writer. The English language is composed of a set amount of letters that form certain words and then it’s up to the “craftsman” or writer to shape something new and interesting from them. I like that Seiji and Shizuku are connected as artists in this way, and it makes Seiji a more likable and interesting love interest.
However, Seiji tells Shizuku that he’s leaving to apprentice under a strict luthier in Italy. He says, “He’ll see if I have the talent or not. Also if I have the patience to stick it out.” This further cements the difference between the two as Shizuku represents the exhilaration of starting a new hobby or journey, while Seiji represents the patience and diligence needed to continue it.
Shizuku admires Seiji’s diligence, but she’s also worried about how she comes off to him. She tells a friend, “You can’t say ‘go for it’ to someone more ambitious than you[,]” and is insecure about whether he’ll continue liking her. Vulnerable moments like these lend to the strength of Whisper of the Heart’s narrative and make Shizuku one of the most relatable protagonists in a Studio Ghibli movie.
Shizuku is simultaneously envious and inspired by Seiji, which leads to her deciding to “test” herself by writing a story. When she begins, she’s given a very important piece of advice by Seiji’s grandfather: “Don’t expect perfection at first.” He also compares Seiji and Shizuku to metamorphic rock as they’re “rough, unpolished, still natural.”
They have the potential for greatness inside them and shine with the right light, but will have to work hard on polishing themselves and their work. It’s reassuring to know that perfection isn’t expected but that hard work is with the hope that it’ll pay off, even if you don’t immediately see it.
Shizuku’s conversation with her friend and Seiji’s grandfather is also a nice contrast between the younger characters and the older ones. The idea of polishing oneself through work sheds light on another important part of the movie, which is…
Family and Perspective
I didn’t notice the family dynamics in the movie during my previous watches, but they really stood out to me this time. Shizuku’s family brings an interesting dynamic to Whisper of the Heart that isn’t really seen in other Studio Ghibli movies. The family lives in a crowded apartment, and the parents are a little distant because they’re busy with work. The family has a set of chores they attempt to distribute evenly, but the older sister notices that Shizuku’s not pulling her weight:
Shizuku’s sister has to pick up all the tasks Shizuku’s supposed to do, and it gets worse once Shizuku decides to begin writing. She’s consumed by it to the point of her grades slipping, and begins to frequently miss meals and ignore her family. Instead of villainizing them though, Whisper of the Heart asks for viewers to empathize and look at it from the family’s perspective. The movie shows that Shizuku’s not the only one working hard on her dreams–her mother is working on her master’s thesis, and her sister is in college and wants to move out.
On the surface level, Shizuku sees all the work the family puts into achieving what they want, but doesn’t understand their concern for her low grades. She argues with her sister and yells, “You don’t study! You just work part-time!” and her sister replies, “I do what I have to!” When her sister asks Shizuku to share what she wants to do instead of studying, Shizuku doesn’t. This miscommunication concerning goals and work is what leads to her parents having a serious talk with Shizuku.
Shizuku’s actions affect the entire ecosystem of her family, and I appreciate that the parents consider her feelings seriously. It’s a two-sided conversation, not one where they scream or lecture her about grades. Instead, they ask about her priorities and pinpoint why she’s not studying. Her parents end up agreeing that she should do what she believes in, but–like Seiji’s grandfather–they remind her that it won’t be easy deviating from the normal path. They also want to see her making an effort to be part of the family like joining them at mealtimes, but otherwise trust her to do her own thing. (It helps that she promises to make a decision by the end of three weeks). This is a level of respect that’s rarely given to children in fiction and in reality, but I think all adults could do with treating kids more like that.
In the end, Shizuku decides to go to high school and continue her studies with a renewed vigor. She’s passed her “test,” but I think having the freedom to do it in the first place is what allows her to sincerely return to school. If her parents hadn’t been supportive and if she had given up at some point during the test, she might’ve returned to studying but it would’ve been out of reluctant obligation.
Whisper of the Heart is a great coming-of-age movie because of the ways it tackles an adolescent’s desire for freedom and her burgeoning talent. The adults encourage Shizuku to write, but make her understand the effort and responsibility she has to nurture that talent. There are consequences to the path she chooses, but what’s important is that she has the agency and mindset to choose in the first place without pushing the blame onto someone else if things go wrong. Despite graduating middle school myself a while ago, I can’t help but feel hopeful about my own future alongside Shizuku and Seiji as they watch the sunrise at the end.