Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
To this point in the Ghibli canon, either Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki have taken the reigns for each project, with the exception of the television movie Ocean Waves, which is just that, and exception. But with Whisper of the Heart, we get our first glimpse into what Ghibli looks like without the masters at the helm, even if Miyazaki wrote the script. The result is about what you would expect, especially from a name like Yoshifumi Kondo, who would never direct again. That sounds extreme, albeit true, and it may be a little unfair to expect Kondo to deliver the same kind of imagination and world building that have been the core of the success of Studio Ghibli yesterday and today. This is not on the level of Taahata or Miyazaki, but still feels like Ghibli, and is still a good movie.
The story, as should be no surprise given the script is written by Miyazaki, is no departure from the type of content we’ve seen before, and as I’ve said, feels right at home with the canon. Shizuku is a middle school aged girl with a penchant for reading books. She is the ultimate definition of a bookworm, spending her time at the library and reading, so much so that her other studies actually suffer from her obsession with books. Her family, while a well educated and successful one, does not press her to study for her exams. Shizuku begins to resent a certain young boy who keeps running into her. At the same time all of her classmates are trading juvenile affections, Shizuku begins to fall in love with a name, Seiji Amasawa, which appears before hers in every library book she checks out.
For a story written by Miyazaki, I was somewhat surprised to see very little in the way of world building. The characters are well developed, and there are a few good, unique, and engaging scenes put forth to help establish the school community and the curiosity of Shizuku, but none of these serve to truly build a world around the characters. When the film does begin to work its way into the surreal and fantastical realm, a realm in the comfort zone of Miyazaki, the film feels restrained and does not explore it quite a fully as I would have liked to establish the true talents and imagination of Shizuku. The restraint seems miscalculated, as the shot of imagination is exactly what this film needed.
As otherwise, the narrative slinks along at a laid-back pace, never reaching a crest of a trough, playing it safe somewhere in the middle to its own detriment. At the heart of the film is a good message for viewers, which is to pursue you dreams, but unlike most animated films with the same motto, Whisper of the Heart encourages with a conservative edge, having Shizuku pursue her dream to be a writer, while pursuing her further education as a way to hedge her bet. The romance is cute, and charming, but it’s also extremely predictable from the very start, which does a story with little other intrigue no favors. All in all the film is very safe.
I would, however, like to emphasize that while the film plays it safe and misses out on plenty of opportunities to wow or capture the imagination of the audience, Whisper of the Heart is another solid effort from Studio Ghibli, though certainly not among its best. There are plenty of options when seeking out animated films in today’s market, and you can do far worse than Whisper of the Heart, which I suppose is the nicest thing I could say about a film which chooses “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver as its theme song, though this oddly feels fitting. For what could be more solid, yet safe and predictable than a John Denver song, when there are so many other types and great songs out there to choose from.