"Whisper of the Heart" is the kind of Studio Ghibli film that truly is special and enchanting. When we talk about the many prestigious animation classics they've made over the years, this film from 1995 is one that sometimes isn't brought up a lot but it's one that absolutely should. It's another one of their smaller scale animated slice of life films much like "My Neighbor Totoro" or "Only Yesterday" and it's one that truly whisks you away into a world that truly is special. It has been developing a bit more appreciation in recent years and I'm glad it has because not only is this another winning animated film from Studio Ghibli, it just so happens to be one of their very best. This film really was fantastic and I adored it way more than I thought I would.
A young fourteen-year-old girl named Shizuku (Yōko Honna) has been attending her last days of junior high trying desperately to study for her exams while constantly wandering around in the library reading books. While her parents and older sister don't seem to pay her much mind due to being caught up in other things, Shizuku seems to be wondering what her special talent is and whether or not she's good enough despite people like her best friend Yūko (Maiko Kayama) telling her so. One day, she seems to stumble upon an old antique shop run by a man named Shirō Nishi (Keiju Kobayashi) where she becomes entranced by a statue of a mysterious cat as well as constantly bumps paths with his grandson, Seiji (Issei Takahashi), a boy who goes to Shizuku's school who wants to be a professional violin builder and from there, Shizuku begins to question where she can go and what her true talent might be. I would say more, but the film is so special I think you ought to see it for yourself.
Here's the thing with me, I am a huge sucker for teenage drama films and coming of age stories. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because I connect deeply with these characters more than others because I'm around the same age as them, maybe it's because the journeys they endure are very simple and special that they sometimes do more to me than say a giant fantasy epic or adventure. I'm not quite sure what it is, but these films do know how to make an impact on me and they hold a special place in my heart. Naturally, I had a feeling that I was going to really enjoy this film but it enchanted me way more than I initially expect. This was the second film from Studio Ghibli not to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata (although Miyazaki does write the film) and was rather directed by animator Yoshifumi Kondo who Ghibli would hope would become a new director at the studio. Unfortunately, this would end up becoming his only film as he would die three years after making his directorial debut. It's such a shame this was his only film because he really showed so much potential as a director and I know he would've gone on to make more amazing work. I especially loved the way the story unfolded and how everything felt so natural for me. Unlike Studio Ghibli's previous teen drama "Ocean Waves" which came across as very melodramatic and boring, this film felt very sweet and a little corny but in the best ways. It's a film where not much happens in terms of the plot since most of the film relies on a lot of dialogue, but it mainly shines based on how the characters grow since the conversation and scenes they have connected with me deeply. Even scenes that could feel as very formulaic and overdone don't feel that way and are presented very naturally. One main example is a scene where Shizuku and a friend named Sugimura talk near a shrine and Sugimura reveals that he has feelings for her despite her knowing that her best friend Yūko confessed she has a crush on him earlier in the film. Done poorly, this scene could've been contrived and dull but it's not. It feels presented very maturely and it ends up working very well. Even smaller moments within the film help give certain scenes some levity like a scene where Seiji tells Shizuku about going to Italy on the rooftop at school looking over the city as a bunch of her classmate's spy on their conversation and wonder whether or not they'll kiss. Stuff like that goes a long way for me.
Though what really connected with me about this film were the themes of the film. I'll get more into that later because it ties into the characters so I'll talk briefly about the animation. It's once again terrific and it continues to show Ghibli's growth as a studio. There's a lot of great detail and stylization seen in this film with the prime example being the fantasy scenes based on Shizuku's story. The backgrounds in these scenes which were done by painter Naohisa Inoue are very gorgeous and reminded me a lot of the work of Claude Monet. I also was very impressed by the camerawork in the film. Kondo moves the camera a lot during the film particularly as the characters are walking from destinations and I highly applaud the attention to detail that went into them. Now let's get to the characters who are easily my favorite part of the entire film. Shizuku is one of my favorite protagonists in Studio Ghibli's entire catalog and I deeply connected with her. Throughout the film, she aspires to be a writer and wants to show what she's capable of, but she is constantly worried about whether or not her work is meaningless and will be dismissed by people she knows. As an artist who also has that concern and is also worried that my hopes and dreams might be worthless, I really related deeply. Even then, she's not just a boring and emotional teenage girl as we see her hanging out with Yūko as they talk about boys, their own silly plans, and the pressures of school. She's a character that really grows and develops minutely. I especially loved the scenes she has with the other characters as well, particularly the ones with Seiji who also has the same worries she does, and the relationship that blossoms between them is very adorable. Even the small moments she has between Mr. Nishi and even her parents just stick out and it helps make the film just so special.
In the end, "Whisper of the Heart" truly is a special animated film from Studio Ghibli. The story has amazing themes and is elegantly told, the animation is beautiful and has great camerawork, and the characters are all terrific, particularly the protagonist. This really is one of Studio Ghibli's very best films and it's one I can easily recommend without a doubt. This is a film that really has stood the test of time and I know it'll be one that'll continue to live on in the audience's hearts around the world.