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Everyday Magic: 'Whisper Of The Heart' And The Experience Of Wonder
Ian Wang , July 17th, 2020 08:24

Now turning 25, Studio Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart still stands as one of the most impressive and emotional things the Japanese animation titans have ever done. Ian Wang looks back on the earnest, wide-eyed optimism of a masterpiece

A sweeping, panoramic view of the Tokyo cityscape, all blinking neon lights and bustling traffic, is the first thing we see in Whisper of the Heart. The camera glides gently down to street level where we meet our protagonist, a bookish middle schooler named Shizuku Tsukishima, as she runs to the convenience store and back again to her family’s crowded, cluttered apartment.

This setting is one of the first things you notice about Whisper of the Heart. The film stands out as one of just three Studio Ghibli films (alongside Ocean Waves and My Neighbours the Yamadas) set predominantly in the prosaic urbanity of a modern-day city. In contrast to the lavish dreamscapes and epic narratives of Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke, Whisper is disarming in its insistence on mundanity. Its story is simple, unpretentious, even conventional: a love story between Shizuku and her classmate Seiji, two average teenagers each pursuing their respective crafts – writing and violin-making. Shizuku even jokes about the banality of her surroundings with a friend, rewriting the lyrics of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ into a tongue-in-cheek exaltation of Tokyo’s “concrete roads”.

Yet even with this awareness, the film treats its humdrum location with love and attention. The opening sequence gazes upon the city with tenderness rather than tedium. The Tsukishima apartment, though messy and unkempt, is presented with a level of detail – piles of dog-eared books, haphazardly-stacked dishes – that could only come from a sense of real endearment. About halfway through the film, Shizuku catches a glimpse of the city from atop a tall hill, and gasps with amazement. ‘“It’s like we’re in the sky,” she says. Shizuku might crack jokes about “concrete roads,” but she cares for her hometown nonetheless.

This embrace of the ordinary is the driving spirit of Whisper of the Heart, a film sometimes unfairly dismissed as a charming but ultimately juvenile teen romance, falling short of Ghibli’s canonical masterpieces. Although its ambitions seem smaller, at its core Whisper grapples with the very same themes as films like Spirited Away: the bewildering joy of youthful self-discovery, and the true meaning of love. Where other Ghibli films allow their everyday protagonists to escape into magical worlds, Whisper’s poignancy is in its ability to find magic in the everyday.

This preoccupation with ordinary life means that, far from slipping into monotony, the film is able to sidestep tired cinematic cliches in favour of something more genuine. Its story, as with the depiction of its setting, is refreshing in its keenly-observed attention to detail and its resistance to the expectations of its audience. Shizuku is a budding artist, her imagination abuzz with dashing heroes and mystical adventures, and over the course of the film she writes her first story. But this narrative arc evades the cathartic resolution we might expect. In the end, Shizuku is disappointed with her story: it’s good, but not great. Seiji’s grandfather, who has become a mentor to Shizuku, compares it to an unpolished gemstone, whose raw potential she is only just beginning to discover. Rather than the cheap satisfaction of having Shizuku’s ambitions be immediately realised, Whisper of the Heart shows us a sobering but ultimately more profound reality: great art takes time.

And although the romance plot features familiar tropes – an initial prickliness that softens into affection, an embarrassingly over-the-top declaration of love – the film is quick to turn away from simplistic archetypes and instead leans into its characters’ clumsy, vulnerable humanity. Seiji and Shizuku’s feelings for each other are never presented as a mere naive infatuation. At the crux of their relationship is a shared passion for their art, and a desire to encourage the other to pursue their goals. When Seiji goes away on a two-month violin-making apprenticeship in Italy, Shizuku is at first frustrated at her own lack of ambition, then inspired to take matters into her own hands. “He’s going to find out if he’s talented enough,” she says. “Well, so will I!”

The subsequent third act, which follows the highs and lows of Shizuku’s endeavour, is surprising in the fact that Seiji is almost completely absent. Rather than dwell tiresomely on the mechanics of these characters’ courtship, the film chooses to focus on the impact their romantic feelings have on both of their lives; how love teaches them not only to care for others, but also to care for themselves. When the pair are reunited in the film’s final moments, Seiji talks to Shizuku about her story and apologises that ”I didn’t do anything to help.” But she tells him: “No, you were the reason I did it.”

This, more than the slightly outlandish marriage proposal that follows, is the crucial emotional beat of the scene. It imagines love not as a self-serving teenage fantasy, but as a form of earnest reciprocity, of discovering yourself through the eyes of the person that loves you. In Whisper of the Heart, the things that end up meaning the most are not big, melodramatic climaxes, but quieter moments of honest, meaningful connection.

And this truth finds echoes throughout Ghibli’s work. We watch in awe of the majestic grandeur of Spirited Away’s bathhouse, but the scene of the film that strikes most deeply for many viewers is the much more understated train sequence. And no character embodies a sense of magical wonder better than Totoro – yet there is also no moment in that film which brings him more joy than the simple, everyday sensation of raindrops falling onto an umbrella.

I see in Totoro’s delighted grin the same sense of astonishment that Shizuku feels seeing her city from above and feeling like she’s in the sky. Whether their worlds are magical or not, these scenes both find beauty in the small pleasures of ordinary life. More than just a conventional romance or coming-of-age narrative, Whisper of the Heart reveals itself a tender, unabashedly optimistic meditation on the experience of wonder – of being so enrapt in art and love and the beauty of the world that, despite the panic and confusion of growing up, these characters are willing to embrace every last bit.

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