There are just a handful of films that can pack so many layers into one condensed cinematic space as Yoshifumi Kondo’s 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart. There are also just a small number of movies that can faithfully convey an uncorrupt non-cynical sense of optimism as well as Kondo’s film does. In short, Whisper of the Heart embodies the concept of a new beginning under a lens that explores the tribulations of growing up in a modern urban sphere. The film depicts change as a fluid concept, one that does not always come from within nor from outside factors, but that alternates depending on the situation and is never the same among different people.
Shizuku Tsukishima, a passionate young girl from suburban Tokyo on the brink of her high school years, is the motor of Whisper of the Heart’s plot. Her life changes when she repeatedly starts seeing a name in every book she rents from her local library: Seiji Amasawa. Shizuku then begins daydreaming about this mysterious man and how her life is going to change once they meet. One day, curious as always, Shizuku follows a cat from a train station all the way to an antique shop coincidentally owned by Seiji’s grandfather. At this moment, her life enters into a transition period in which she will have to face new life stages and feelings she has never dealt with before.
Kondo’s portrayal of suburban Japanese culture is affected by the traditional post-war society that emerged during the decades of the 70s and the 80s as described by Satsuki Kawano, Glenda S. Roberts, and Susan Orpett Long in their book Capturing Contemporary Japan. For them, Japan’s economic resurgence after World War II generated a wide middle-class that has the husband as the main breadwinner with a singular position as a salaryman and the wife as the caretaker of their children. It was as if society had found its comfort zone and people were just little cogs of a bigger mechanism that never stops working.
By the 1990s, according to Kawano et al, the economy plummeted, shaking the foundations the quotidian Japanese society was accustomed to. People were no longer content with just being an entity chewed up and spat into an assembly line or with calling that a life worth living. Kawano, Roberts, and Long point out that this general sentiment is not unique to Japan but to other “post-industrial societies [where] self-realization and individuality have become much more important” (4).
This is where Whisper of the Heart takes place, in a period when the quotidian and routine are beginning to be questioned. In a period where change was subtly beginning to be perceived. However, change can be difficult to recognize and face when quotidian routines reign supreme over all else. It is hard to snap out of the soul-crushing, dreadful, realization that we are throwing away time, personal goals and passion in exchange for the slimmest commodities and a handful of meaningless objects.
Whisper of the Heart adeptly presents us a world in which people are deeply entrenched in quotidian routines. We see crowds of workers getting on and off the trains commuting to different parts of Tokyo, we get a peek at Shizuku and her family repeating the same activities day in and day out. They eat dinner together, her mom and dad leave in the morning, she leaves for school and her sister makes bento lunch-boxes. Nothing appears to change exteriorly, the world keeps turning, the sun keeps on rising and the trains keep on chugging along.
However, the more we spend time with Shizuku and her family, the more we realize that they are not as conventional as they appear on the surface. They are indeed stuck to routines and conventional societal norms, but we discover that Shizuku’s mom is a grad student, a widely disregarded role for women who are mothers in Japan, as their roles in society – student, worker or mother – never overlap. (Kawano et al, 15) Shizuku’s dad is not a salaryman from a big corporation but a librarian sincerely passionate about his job, and Shizuku’s sister is on the verge of moving out to find independence.
In the historical context, change and the opportunity for new beginnings is widely present in Whisper of the Heart. This is what can be evidenced in the diegetic world that surrounds Shizuku, a world on the verge of change. But separated from all this, almost in another elevated plane far away from the terribly contradictory machinations of the ‘real world’, lies Shizuku herself.
Shizuku spends her days losing herself in fantastic books, maybe fleeing from her surroundings, living vicariously through the characters of the stories she consumes, or maybe she does it as a way to create a new brighter world. Shizuku is the true motor behind Whisper of the Heart because she presents unironically positive energy whose biggest challenge is to keep growing.
Where Shizuku’s family embodies change and new beginnings as an opposing force to the lack of identity common after Japan’s post-industrial shift; Shizuku herself presents the idealization of someone honestly seeking personal gratification as she deems no dream unattainable. Not even the fact that she is anchored to institutions (nuclear family, school, etc) stops Shizuku from striving towards her goals.
Shizuku’s materialization of a new beginning is sparked by passion. After she meets Seiji and his grandfather, Shizuku discovers that her passion for writing and reading is special. She gets to this understanding thanks to the raw passion they display when performing their craft. Seiji’s grandfather is the owner of an antique shop that rarely opens. He is not concerned with the daily economics of a conventional business, he cares about the objects that reside within the store respecting the artistry and emotional value each piece has. When he explains to Shizuku the story behind an ancient clock, we realize that he does not care about the clock itself but the craft put into an object that carries enormous emotional implications. Our eyes cannot help but shine, just as Shizuku’s when someone speaks from the heart.
On the other hand, Seiji builds violins and although he enchants Shizuku with his adept playing, he believes he is a subpar violin player. For Seiji, the true beauty is in the craftsmanship of the instrument itself, not the sounds the instrument produces; an ideal that goes very well in line with the post-industrial perception of individuals: we are more than what we do!
Seiji and his grandfather truly show Shizuku that that opportunity to start again does not reside just in opposing the norm, but to actively follow your heart, as well. Inspired by them, Shizuku decides to write a story worthy of their approval. Her process is messy, she barely sleeps and abandons multiple responsibilities at school and home. Shizuku’s mind and heart are entirely set on achieving her goal.
This is where the aforementioned uncorrupt sense of optimism is injected by Kondo. Shizuku confronts the challenges by tackling her project with her undivided attention and passion, which means that the actual story she is writing is not really that important. It is the spark that drives her forward that matters. This is what allows her to be the person she strives to be. It is true that Shizuku is inspired by Seiji and his grandfather to practice and better her craft, but the fire was always there. Her optimism to be who she wants to be is the ultimate greatest quality Shizuku has.
There cannot be a better way to conclude than the way Whisper of the Heart finishes. Shizuku and Seiji go up the windy hills of Seiseki-Sakuragaoka to catch the sunrise on a cold autumn morning. They remain quiet, in awe of the breathtaking moment they are witnessing, until Seiji in a pure and untamed rush of love asks Shizuku to marry him. As she shyly accepts, Seiji adds that they could work on their crafts and follow their passion as a couple. These small remarks are powerful because Seiji and Shizuku understand each other as individuals, each with a devoted heart to their dreams and one another.
On that note, Kondo finalizes the film and I will finalize this text. With an open promise of a new beginning in which individuals can and must follow what fills their heart, even if it is sometimes too faint, too much of a whisper to understand it. A promise that has love, passion and open-mindedness as its pillars.
Kawano, Satsuki, et al. Capturing Contemporary Japan. University of Hawai’i Press. 2014