Ghibli on Netflix: Whisper of the Heart
Nathanael Smith | On 04, Apr 2020
With Studio Ghibli films now available on Netflix UK, we look at what makes them so magical.
Ask any aspiring writer what their favourite Studio Ghibli film is and they will probably say Whisper of the Heart. There’s a scene in it when the creative young heroine Shizuku hands over her first attempt at a novel to a kind antique dealer to read. The end result of this gesture – a mixture of kindness, critique and tears – is so painfully relatable that everyone who has ever blasted through NaNoWriMo or attempted to get their magnum opus published will feel, in the modern lingo, “seen”. It’s an acutely human moment in a film full of them, marking it as one of the finest films in Ghibli’s already formidable canon.
The plot of Whisper of the Heart is lodged firmly at the “gentle drama” end of the Ghibli spectrum, rather than the “sprawling fantasy adventure” end. Shizuku is a 14-year-old trying to work out who she wants to be. She spends her days in the library, roaming Tokyo, hanging out in an antique shop and writing songs. She falls for the handsome violin maker Seiji, whose own creativity inspires Shizuku to write a novel about a magical, oddly handsome cat – The Baron, who also appears in the much more fantastical The Cat Returns. That’s basically it; this is a mostly plotless journey through one girl’s adolescence, a coming-of-age tale that celebrates the power of imagination and artistry.
The film itself is as intricately crafted as a luthier’s violin and as richly colourful as a teenager’s fantasy novel. The setting of the antique shop, in particular, is a vividly realised world unto itself, overflowing with curios that glisten and gleam beneath the hot sunlight of a Tokyo summer. It’s a shop that overflows with stories, where clocks contain fairy tales and cat figurines long for their lost partners. The richly detailed animation will transport you to this quiet corner of the city and you won’t want to leave.
At its heart, though, this is a story of first love, as two teenagers forge a meaningful, intense connection. It succeeds because it lends credibility to the importance of these teenage emotions, rather than looking down on them. Miyazaki’s screenplay empathetically invites you to participate in the tumult of adolescent feeling. When the two find themselves drawn to one another over the course of a particularly memorable rendition of Country Roads, it’s hard not to remember your own first love and how it made you feel. You find yourself swept away in the romance of it all, disarmed by its sweetness and innocence.
Those who fall for Whisper of the Heart will also encounter a strange sense of melancholy. This was the only film directed by the prodigiously talented animator Yoshifumi Kondo, who died three years after it was released. Allegedly, the cause of death was an aneurysm due to consistent overwork and harsh conditions at Studio Ghibli. One wonders what else an artist of this creativity might have accomplished if he’d lived longer; how tragic that his only film is one that revolves around the question of how much an artist should give to their art. Still, we should be grateful that this paean to the boundless creativity of youth exists. Cherish it.
Whisper of the Heart is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.