Whisper of the Heart resembles other Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service in that there are no grand adventures, no epic struggles. It’s the simple but utterly charming story of a teenage girl trying to find herself. Written by the master Miyazaki and directed by the sadly late Yoshifumi Kondo, it’s a film I find myself returning to again and again for its quiet majesty and good nature.
Much like Kiki’s, the film is eerily good at getting into the mindset of not just what teenagers sound like, but what being one felt like. It captures the boredom of class, the excitement of first crushes, the uncertainty of what you want to do with your future and when curiosity distracted you from doing something important. There’s an absolutely marvelous little sequence where our heroine, Shizuku Tsukushima (Brittany Snow in the English dub), follows a portly cat across town in lieu of returning books to the library. It’s a quiet, yet exciting journey, and Shizuku manages to take the film in a direction we don’t expect as a result, finding a quaint antiques shop and a friendly old man, Nishi (Harold Gould), who turns out to be the grandfather of the boy she’s starting to like, Seiji Amasawa (David Gallagher).
My favorite part of the film is the subplot that develops where Shizuku decides to pursue her writing skills. The teen romance stuff is all very well done, sweet, funny and any complications that arise are dealt with quickly (a potential love triangle is mercifully brief). Yet Shizuku’s struggles with writing resonated with me far more; I consider myself a writer, and much of the pain she goes through attempting to do it is all too familiar, such as her agonized self-critique of a first draft. Yet the encouragement she gets from Nishi is just as important: stories can be rough that first time, but they can also be beautiful and passionate, only needing fine-tuning and refinement.
As usual for Ghibli, the technical merits of the film are excellent. Character designs are smooth and appealing, with the animation being nicely realistic and awkward in its depiction of teenage body language (my favorite bit is probably when Shizuku’s friend, Yuko, has been crying and looks absolutely miserable, but it’s still kind of funny). Yuji Nomi, taking over for usual Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, provides a diverse score of orchestrations and more modern electronic music, though the best stuff is probably in the brief fantasy interludes where Shizuku imagines the characters and world of her story. The English dub is quite good, with Snow, Gallagher and other teenage actors at the time like Ashley Tisdale and Martin Spanjers giving down-to-Earth performances, with Gould probably being the best amongst the supporting cast, which includes James Sikking and Jean Smart as Shizuku’s parents and Courtney Thorne-Smith as her older sister.
Whisper of the Heart is probably my favorite of the non-directed-by-Miyazaki Ghibli films (outside of My Neighbors The Yamadas, never been much of a Takahata fan), with a subtlety and gentleness that I wish more American animation was willing to try. Arguably it’s far better than a lot of live action teenage-focused properties; authors would do well to study it. They might learn something.