Can you remember when you saw your first Studio Ghibli film? I do. I was fifteen years old at the time, and the movie was Whisper of the Heart. Up until then, I had been fed a steady diet of Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks films. I wasn’t familiar with anime in general. The name “Ghibli” rang a dim bell in my mind, but I had no idea what type of films the studio made. One day, my brother brought home Whisper from the Heart from the library and gathered the family around to watch it. As I sat back, I figured the movie was going to be like many Western animated films—fast, lively, and loud.
I was wrong, very wrong.
Whisper of the Heart, directed by Yoshifumi Kondō and released in 1995, introduces us to Shizuku, a young teenage girl, who lives in Tokyo with her family. Strong-willed, curious, and creative, Shizuku loves to read fairy tales and write song lyrics. One day, bored and looking for an adventure, she follows a stray cat to an antique shop where she meets a boy her age (Seiji), his kind grandfather, and a mysterious statue of a cat with shimmering green eyes. Shizuku is drawn both to the boy and the statue and begins a journey of finding and claiming her own dreams.
Shizuku follows the proud Studio Ghibli tradition of depicting strong, smart female protagonists who know what they want and strive to achieve their goals and dreams. Seiji is just as passionate and dedicated to his dreams as Shizuku, and they complement each other well. Both are willing to work hard to master their respective crafts (writing and violin making). And let’s not forget the cats—live and inanimate. Both are alluring and mysterious and drive the characters forward in the film.
The film’s animation is old, but that only adds to its charm. As for the music, I will always remember Whisper of the Heart with Olivia Newton-John’s rendition of “Take Me Home Country Roads.” On my initial viewing, the country song stuck out like a sore thumb in a story set in modernized Tokyo, Japan, but it slowly grew on me as the song was repeated throughout the film.
Tragically, Whisper of the Heart was the only film that Yoshifumi Kondō directed before his untimely death in 1998. He had previously worked as an animation director for Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, and Princess Mononoke and was expected to be one of Studio Ghibli’s main directors and eventual successor. However, it is clear that Kondō poured his heart and soul into Whisper of the Heart, making his one and only directed film memorable and a worthy entry in Studio Ghibli’s line of classics.
After my first time watching Whisper of the Heart, I didn’t know what to make of it. The style, pacing, animation, and tone were so different. The movie took its sweet time telling the story. I couldn’t figure out the film’s purpose. Love? Chasing your dreams? Visiting antique shops? Writing? Cat statues? I was puzzled but piqued by this Studio Ghibli.
I soon went on my merry way, finding other animated movies to watch and enjoy. Some stayed with me, but many slipped by without making much of an impression. Except Whisper of the Heart. For some reason, I couldn’t forget a simple yet resonating tale of a girl’s coming-of-age and her realizations about love, life, and ambitions.
In the following years, I have watched more Studio Ghibli films, and my appreciation for the Japanese style of animation has only grown. Recently, I sat down to watch Whisper of the Heart again. I hadn’t seen it since I was Shizuku’s age, and now, watching it as a young woman, I could see similarities between Shizuku and myself as a fifteen year old girl. Her love for stories, aspirations to be a writer, and insecurities in her abilities struck a chord with me. I think that’s why I could never forget the film, even after many years. I believe that’s what makes Whisper of the Heart special: it’s relatable, it’s honest, and it’s hopeful.
What was your first Studio Ghibli film? What did you think of it?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes