Since I began writing about film, Studio Ghibli has been my main inspiration and favorite topic, for both magazine articles and academic papers. The meticulous detail of the animation, peaceful beauty of the visuals, and thematically complex and resonant stories have kept me fascinated for years, even when I have watched the films countless times. But one Ghibli film in particular actively encourages this kind of passion within the narrative itself: Whisper of the Heart, the studio’s most underrated masterpiece. As it reaches the milestone of its 25th anniversary, it feels right to reflect on the power the film holds to inspire further creativity, and how it sits as the most metatextual film in the Ghibli canon.
From the opening moments of the film, Whisper of the Heart is a more conventionally relatable movie that anything Ghibli had created before. The setting is modern Tokyo, and the lead character is Shizuku Tsukishima, a schoolgirl who spends most of her time reading stories and seeking similar adventures in her own life. As well as writing and rewriting new lyrics to John Denver’s Country Road for her middle school graduation, she embarks upon writing a novel, neglecting her high school entrance exams in the process. For anyone who has ever had a one-track mind style obsession with their passions, this is incredibly resonant, and the fact that her creative process and hard work is depicted onscreen makes her drive to create feel tangible. Her complex relationship with her own desire to create also provides a level of depth to the film – instead of straightforwardly mastering her talents, she learns to realistically temper them against the rest of her life for the sake of her relationships and wellbeing.
But this isn’t to say that Shizuku is some kind of unique prodigy, whose writing is immediately brilliant; in fact, Shizuku’s passion often comes out in rather clunky, ‘corny’ (to quote Seiji) ways. When reading her first novel attempt, Seiji’s grandfather points out that it was ‘a little rough’ – as this moment comes so late in the film, it struck me that a protagonist rarely has such a level of incompetence so close to the ending. This tendency to rush bleeds over into other elements of her life, such as her squabbling with her sister and her initial attitude towards Seiji. You could even say that some of the perceived flaws of the film itself reflect Shizuku’s own imperfections, and provide Whisper of the Heart with its uniquely youthful character – its charming tendency to announce intense emotion, for instance.
Where other Ghibli films seek to create conversations around topics as broad and daunting as war, death, and the divine, Whisper of the Heart dissects the creativity that drives Ghibli itself, and the raw form this takes in young aspiring creators. Shizuku is a small fish in a big pond, with the intimidating expanse of Tokyo looming in the background at every turn. And yet, despite knowing about the thousands of other writers who have more experience (perhaps even natural talent) than her, she persists with her work, still following her impulse to invent. To me, this makes the final moments of the film some of the most gratifying and emotionally impactful in any Ghibli film: she and Seiji watch the sunrise over Tokyo, knowing that their creative journeys are only just beginning.
This navigation in an urban setting is surely relatable for teens and young adults who have moved out to the big city for better creative opportunities, or who have grown up in its shadow. And while this can be daunting, Whisper of the Heart ensures that Tokyo is always, at heart, Shizuku’s playground. Outside of her family’s cramped apartment, the hidden secrets of the city await and watching Shizuku explore her hometown against a backdrop of chirping cicadas and anonymous extras emphasize the concentrated possibilities that such a place can provide. At one point, she finds inspiration simply by choosing to follow a cat who sat next to her on the train; in doing so, she discovers an antique shop with stories of its own, just one example of the spider’s web of inspiration that Tokyo is for Shizuku, and that any landscape can be for a young artist or writer.
But Whisper of the Heart isn’t a film that advocates for creative individualism; instead, it shows that collaboration can lead to true creative satisfaction. In one of my favorite film scenes of all time, Shizuku gains the confidence to sing her new lyrics to Seiji, after he encourages her with violin accompaniment. After a few lines, Seiji’s grandfather and his friends arrive home, joining the duo on other instruments to create a performance that feels far more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ending scene gains further poignancy for me via Seiji’s abrupt marriage proposal to Shizuku – as ‘corny’ as it may be, I can’t think of anything that demonstrates the power of their creative union better. Even the fact that the song is a John Denver cover shows the various forms that collaboration can take, as even across time, Shizuku is finding inspiration in the words of others. So many of us begin creative careers through derivative works, and by acknowledging this, the film understands that art consists of endlessly connecting creations, with young people joining to continue (and perhaps break from) this chain.
As the first and only film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, Whisper of the Heart also has a uniquely personal feel and macabrely suggests the potential that the filmmaker held. Although he had previously worked on key animation for Ghibli classics like Porco Rosso and Pom Poko, and was even the animation director for Only Yesterday, this is the first film that he was able to make his mark on narratively and thematically. And given the growing reputation of Studio Ghibli, Kondo had big shoes to fill, an industrial context that can clearly be read into Shizuku’s own insecurities in the face of Seiji’s accomplishments. You can even interpret Shizuku’s arc as Kondo making sense of his own artistic place, concluding with his newfound self-belief and cooperative outlook. Unfortunately, Kondo passed away at age 47 only 2 years after Whisper of the Heart’s release, meaning that this film is the bulk of his creative legacy – at least we can take solace in the fact that Kondo’s final work must have inspired so many viewers to begin their first.
In many ways, to use a metaphor that the film itself centralizes, Whisper of the Heart is Studio Ghibli’s geode amongst shining crystals. To the untrained eye, it may be one of their less immediately appealing works, without the promise of fantasy that their other films have in spades. But when looked into further, it holds some of the most engaging characters, endearing moments, and resonant themes of any movie the studio have ever put out. The film is Ghibli’s true hidden gem, and I hope that it continues to light a fire under the creativity of youth for years to come.