Yoshifumi Kondō’s only directorial effort before his tragic death in 1998, Whisper of the Heart follows 14-year-old Shizuku (Yōko Honna) whose studies are stymied by trips to the library, brushes with boys and capers with cats.
This 1995 entry is surprisingly grounded, centred on Shizuku’s domestic and school life that resembles the real-world sections of last year’s Belle; high school crushes, parental relationships and musical interludes. As such it is easily crowded out by Ghibli’s more fantastical features, sandwiched as it is between raccoon romp Pom Poko and ecological epic Princess Mononoke. But this is Studio Ghibli, where there is always magic (the animation makes sure of that) and almost always a flying cat.
These flights of fancy are limited to the story Shizuku writes about the Baron, the fancy feline who returns in 2002’s The Cat Returns; a spiritual sequel that might have been written by Shizuku herself, making that film feel like a loving tribute to the late Kondō. It is the fat commuter cat Moon who leads Shizuku to young violin maker Seiji (Issei Takahashi), the flush of first love splashed red across her cheeks. However the romance proves a small ingredient in Shizuku’s story (and ends it on a decidedly odd note), focusing on her self-doubt, self-expression and self-discovery.
Though it deals with childhood malaise (think Kiki’s Delivery Service without the broomsticks), Shizuku is not the studio’s usual isolated heroine but a popular child who only disassociates from her surroundings when in the intense process of writing. The tough love she receives from her sister adds to the realism of the family dynamic, finally learning to compromise between her creative pursuits and appeasing her supportive parents who tell her: “Not everyone has to be the same.”
As though embodying that maxim, the film is individual in style; the soundtrack comprises covers of Country Roads by John Denver, including one by Olivia Newton-John and an impromptu string arrangement that stands as the superior version. The suburban setting is also something of a departure from Miyazaki’s preferred pastoral tones, with Kondō bathing Tokyo in the glow of streetlights and dappled shadows cast by trees. The effect is warm, welcoming and whimsical, making Whisper of the Heart a wonderful celebration of bookishness and creativity.