Imaginative, intelligent fourteen year old Shizuku Tsukishima (voiced by Youko Honna) secretly longs to be a writer and reads anything she can get her hands on but notices the name Seiji Amasawa appears on the borrower’s lists on every book she checks out from her local library. She wonders who this person that shares her taste in reading could be. When they finally meet, young Seiji (Issei Takahashi) upsets Shizuku by criticising her work and she storms off in a temper. On a whim, Shizuku follows a strange fat cat who leads her to a wondrous antique shop where she grows fascinated with an elegantly attired cat-shaped figurine nicknamed the Baron. Antique store owner Shiro Nishi (Keiju Kobayashi) takes a shine to Shizuku and turns out to be none other than Seiji’s grandfather. Now regularly running into each other, the youngsters discover they also share a love of music. Inspired by Seiji’s devotion to the violin, Shizuku decides to devote her time to writing her first novel.
Whisper of the Heart was the first Studio Ghibli anime not directed by co-founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, although the latter wrote, produced and storyboarded the film and personally handled the aerial sequences during Shizuku’s flights of fancy. The man chosen to handle this unique intermingling of heady fantasy and everyday reality was Yoshifumi Kondo, a long-time protégé of the legendary animators then being groomed to succeed Miyazaki, who at that time was planning his retirement. Sadly, this did not come to be since Kondo passed away quite suddenly a short while after the film was completed. What he left behind was a thoughtful romantic fable, a keenly observed portrayal of adolescent dilemmas including arguably the hardest character trait to render convincingly on-screen: the feeling of purposelessness. For all the romantic complications that ensue, by far Shizuku’s biggest worry is what she will do with her life.
Adapting a manga by Aoi Hiragi, Miyazaki’s script has a feel for the way shy, awkward teens behave and captures the painful self-doubt and self-consciousness that plague adolescents everywhere. This extends to the subplot wherein best friend Yuko (Maiko Yoshida) has a crush on classmate Sugimura (Yoshimi Nakajima), who unbeknownst to all is in love with Shizuku. Kondo lingers brilliantly on every blush and embarrassment in nuanced detail, although blink and you’ll miss how things are resolved over the end credits. While Shizuku and Seiji’s awkward courtship rings truer than any convoluted rom-com, what impresses most is the message that, far from a trifling distraction, art can be the conduit towards maturity, since it takes a lifetime to master. As indeed does love and relationships, something Shizuku learns from the affable old shopkeeper whose own romantic past is intertwined with the history of his prized figurine.
Whereas an American movie might stress following your dreams and embracing creative passion above all else, here it remains just as important that Shizuku temporarily shelves her writing and knuckles down to study. Though the core message flirts with seeming conservative, it is leavened by its depiction of a world where grownups are infinitely patient and nurture the young rather than quash them into conforming. This is illustrated in a charming scene where Shizuku sings while accompanied by Seiji on violin. One by one three elderly musicians join the jamboree and their enthusiasm slowly fires Shizuku’s self-confidence.
Animated with the loving care and painstaking attention to detail we associate with Studio Ghibli, fans can revel in the heady and inspiring fantasy sequences but should equally take note of subtler minutiae from the intricate grandfather clock that adorns the antique shop to the sardonic expressions of Muta the cat. Incidentally, Shizuku’s cat-themed fantasy novel was itself adapted into a Ghibli movie, as the underrated The Cat Returns (2002).