I may have mentioned (just a few times) how much I love Studio Ghibli’s 1995 film Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba, literally “If you listen closely”) , though I don’t really know why since it’s kind of a random story without much of a plot. It’s just a young girl’s coming-of-age story – a blend of finding your dream and finding your first love, all set to the wonderful John Denver song “Country Roads.”
Shizuku Tsukushima is a middle schooler who is waiting for an adventure to happen. To be proactive about it, during her summer break she sets out to read as many books in her school library as she can (how very Jane Moffat of her), and she notices one thing they all have in common: they were previously checked out by the same person – Seiji Amasawa. She is so curious about this boy, and can’t help but feel a little let down when he turns out to be a classmate who likes to look through her stuff and make fun of her song lyrics. She runs into him again when she follows a fat cat, whom she saw riding the train, to a charming little store tucked away up in the hills – and can you believe it, his grandfather just happens to own that store. She becomes fascinated by the various curios on display, such as a grandfather clock with a gnome king motif, but none catches her eye so much as the statue of a cat with vivid eyes – Baron Humbert von Gikkigen.
Meeting Seiji and the Baron expands her world and leads her to give impromptu concerts, with Seiji on violin, for his grandfather’s musical friends, and to try her hand at writing her own book, which oddly enough stars the Baron. But even a middle schooler can have a tangled love life which gets in the way of having a carefree youth. She hardly knows whether she likes Seiji even just as a friend, when he suddenly tells her he’s leaving for Italy to pursue his violin making dreams (must be nice) – what will she do? And what about her childhood friend, the baseball player Sugimura? And her best friend, Yuko Harada, who likes him? It’s no wonder she spends hours looking into the Baron’s eyes, trying to figure her life out.
From the initial meet-cute coincidence of the library books to the very last scene, this movie was just a sweet story, period, about not knowing what you want to do with your life, even when you have the rest of it ahead of you. There were so many cute school scenes, and also summer break scenes, that it was as if this story was made to order. And who wouldn’t want a celebratory bowl of delicious ramen after finishing a weird story about a cat baron and his long-lost lady-love? The scene of Shizuku and Seiji riding the bike together is one of my favorites ever, mostly because it’s so realistic how he struggles uphill. Even the strangely abrupt ending is charming in its own awkward way – just like adolescence (well, an idealized version of it, anyway).
I found Hayao Miyazaki’s critiques of modern Japanese society to be a little jarring, just as I had problems more recently with his The Secret World of Arrietty which had similar themes. I feel that Shizuku’s mom was a little vilified for going back to school and leaving her oldest daughter to pick up the slack around the house, while her librarian husband kind of floundered as well. I liked the book motif that ran throughout the film – with her father being a librarian, Shizuku and Seiji meeting through books, her writing a book – though I admit I may be biased there a little. It was really contrasted with her mother and sister who used laptops mostly – not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Her whole family in general was a little dysfunctional, but all the better for it. Shizuku also blows off school for a while, which is a pretty drastic way to take a dig at the school system.
He also used the difference between the wealthier Yuko and the struggling Shizuku to comment on socio-economic differences, so you see how deep and complex this film really is. The housing the family lived in as well as the spoof “Concrete Roads” also seemed to be a comment on the bad effects of urbanization, a common Ghibli theme. For Ghibli aficionados, the housing complex also provided an added attraction – it was the site of the previous Ghibli film, Pom Poko. So it looks like the tanuki made way for Shizuku, which seems to suggest that Ghibli doesn’t see development as all that bad. I’m not sure what Shizuku’s story involving the Cat Baron meant or was supposed to symbolize.
This movie was based on a manga of the same title by Aoi Hiiragi which I am dying to read. There are a few differences, such as no social commentary and Seiji not going anywhere, but I get the feeling that I would probably love it too. The pseudo-sequel, The Cat Returns, gives the Baron a more prominent role – for one thing, he is sentient – and seems to riff on the story that Shizuku was working on in this movie. This was probably unlike any other Ghibli film I’ve seen since there is no real magical element – unless you count the fact that Shizuku meets someone just by going to the library a lot. But that’s probably why I like it all the more. It’s a shame that the film’s director, Yoshifumi Kondo, died shortly after this was released. The studio had wanted him to be the successor to Miyazaki, and judging by this movie he would have been wonderful. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s still my favorite Ghibli ever. And that’s something that’s at least worth a steaming hot bowl of ramen.