Whisper of the Heart: “If You Listen Closely…”

It has been a really, really long time since I watched a Studio Ghibli film, and I’ve also never watched a non-Miyazaki Ghibli film, nor have I embarked on the Ghibli pilgrimage. It might seem odd, considering my taste for the slow and sweet, but it’s been on my list of Things To Do for years now, along with trekking down Leiji Matsumoto Lane. Nevertheless, a couple weeks ago Whisper of the Heart came across the desk at work and I glanced at it and said “Okay I’m going to watch this now”; an impromptu decision which led to a quite enjoyable two-hour movie session. That is, once I managed to find the time to actually sit down and watch something for two hours, a far more difficult thing with me than it should be, even with something I know I’ll love.

Whistper of the Heart/耳をすませば/If You Listen Closely is a Yoshifumi Kondo film, and quite lived up to its Anglicized title. Plus, it’s a movie somewhat rooted in a library–I had a librarian chuckle at Shizuku’s father’s mention of his library’s transference to the barcode system, and my librarian heart melted at the circulation cards in the book being an integral element of the story.

Like many other of the romance stories that cause me to melt into a puddle of bliss–The Girl Who Leapt Through Time being perhaps the foremost anime example of this, with Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time-Traveler’s Wife also springing to mind–the story revolves around a pursuit, for love, for direction, for all these things simultaneously. Shizuku spends the first third or so of the movie pining after the mysterious Seiji Amasawa (not realizing that she also calls him a jerk for most of the first third) who always seems to read the books she reads before she does. She then spends the second third or so chasing after him again: as Seiji goes off to Italy to study violin-making to see about becoming a professional violin maker, Shizuku decides to put the fantasy story that’s been sitting inside her for a while into words–an effort that wrecks her performance in school at a critical juncture in her life and nearly ruins her relationship with her friends and family.

In the final third, alas, her story falls apart and she breaks down, unable to catch up to Seiji who is off pursuing his dreams. The point made earlier in the movie during the impromptu Take Me Home, Country Roads jam session–the notion that the best violin makers are frequently not the best violinists–comes home in a different way. Shizuku might be a very good reader, for instance, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that she will also be a very good writer. But, like the jam session, the point often isn’t that you are good at something, but that you had fun doing it. None of the musicians in that scene claimed to be very good (not that I could tell), but even amidst all the professions of “oh, I’m not that good”, that rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads was perhaps the best and the most affecting version in the film.

Acceptance of imperfection is a long-standing Japanese aesthetic trait, of course, along with the notion that that which is here now will not be here later. And the painful lesson Shizuku learns, here, is that one should not devote oneself to a task to “catch up” with Seiji (or anyone else), but to devote oneself to a task one enjoys. Throughout the whole movie, everyone tells Shizuku that she’s a wonderful poet (her translations into Japanese of Take Me Home… were quite eloquent and poetic, as far as I can judge, anyway) yet she insists on writing a novel to catch up with Seiji’s grand chance to prove himself worthy of violin craftsmanship. And yet the process of writing and rejecting the novel still allowed her to uncover more of herself–by pushing herself to the limits, she found what she was and wasn’t capable of, a sentiment I can very much empathize with, given my own experiences with pushing myself to limits that were dangerously closer–or further away–than expected.

In the end, it’s all brought full-circle, as Shizuku learns from Seiji the truth of the namecards: he had noticed her name in front of the books he read and liked, so he started going around the library trying to guess which books Shizuku would read, in the hopes that she, too, would notice his name as he, hers. With it comes the notion that the two of them are different, with different goals and different aptitudes–and yet, at the same time, much the same. It’s that inversion that gives Whisper of the Heart an extra cathartic kick at the end–a kick that might not be strictly necesary, perhaps, but one which was quite welcome at the end of a very sastifying 111 minutes (plus a few days of sinking in).

10 Responses to “Whisper of the Heart: “If You Listen Closely…””

  1. 1 Martin 14 March 2009 at 6:36 am

    It’s a shame that people forget that Ghibli is not synonymous with Miyazaki, because they’ve kicked out some real gems. Only Yesterday was one (I really ought to get around to blogging that sometime too, but eh) but this was another – an underrated Ghibli movie? Absolutely!

    I only watched this one time when it happened to be on FilmFour at some absurd time of the night but I was utterly enchanted by it. It felt like both a slice-of-life and a nostalgia piece, because little details like the library card system you mention are very much of a certain time.

    I didn’t mind the fantastical aspect being downplayed in the movie either – that surrealist sequence was marvellous. I STILL can’t remember the name of the artist whose work it’s based on but it’s even more effective when everything else is rendered in such a true-to-life way.

    Actually I wish Ghibli would make more ‘realistic’ types of films like this. It’s a shame the director died so suddenly, because this showed he had so much potential. :(

    • 2 OGT 14 March 2009 at 11:05 am

      It took me YEARS to remember that Ghibli and Miyazaki weren’t the same person–somewhere around the time Gedou Senki came out and I was like “whoa they have other directors!” And I keep hearing how Miyazaki is a pretty jaded, bitter person, which kind of cost him a bit of respect from me, sadly. And I wasn’t aware Yoshifumi Kondo had died. :(

      I think I forgot to mention it explicitly in the post, but the fact that the library is switching to a barcode system adds to the transience of the movie, I think–the notion that only here and now can this kind of thing happen.

  2. 3 schneider 14 March 2009 at 9:29 am

    Despite looking quite plain in comparison to most anime girls, I found Shizuku to be endearing. Hell, she could kick the bejeebus out of your ordinary NaNoWriMo aspirant. :P

    The library aspect was real nice, and incredibly sweet.

    I did want to check out the cat spinoff film, but I was told it sucked. :(

    • 4 OGT 14 March 2009 at 11:18 am

      I really liked Shizuku as a character, both personality and design, mostly because she was so “plain”. I honestly don’t think I’d describe her as “plain” but that’s because I gravitate towards “plain”. She’s definitely not dolled up like characters in the 00s tend to be–which is perfectly fine (and creates a particularly 00s definition of “plain”), I just like the simple charm of “anybody” characters like Shizuku.

      I’ve heard mixed things about The Cat Returns, but I’ve not seen it myself. It doesn’t have any bearing on Whisper of the Heart as far as I know, though; it’s just a fantasy story involving the Baron.

  3. 5 dm00 14 March 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Whisper of the Heart is, I think, my favorite Ghibli film. It’s one I use to introduce people to Japanese animation (my friends tend to be bookish in the way that Seiji and Shizuru are, so the film takes on a bit of a nostalgic air).

    I’m a bit puzzled at the way you see Shizuku’s novel as a “failure” (or feel that she sees it as one). I don’t think that is the case. I think she views it as a first step (that gem is still hiding in the rough stone), but also as necessary step: her reaction to Seiji comes partly from the realization that he’s planned his future, he’s looking forward, while she feels that she hasn’t done so. Writing this novel is her own declaration of what her future will be like.

    The cat returns is a fine little film — were it from any studio other than Ghibli, it would get more prominent notice, though would probably be relegated to “childrens film” status.

    Both the Baron and Moon figure in the The cat returns. It’s fan folklore that The cat returns is, if not the story that Shizuku wrote in Whisper of the heart, then it is her first published work.

    • 6 OGT 14 March 2009 at 1:56 pm

      “Failure” is probably a bad word for it anyway; I used “failure” as shorthand for the fact that her first story with the Baron didn’t exactly go as planned. It’s a failure in the sense that it didn’t turn out the way that she envisioned it being. It was, however, a success in showing her the path to what she wants to do, hence Seiji’s grandfather’s comment that she’s exposed a bit more of the gem inside the stone. Besides, even if “failure” could be used to describe it, the road to success is, in fact, paved with failure.

      I think, more or less, I assumed (or made implicit) the nuance there, more for brevity’s sake than anything else. Apologies if it came off the other way, I should probably learn the art sometime soon of being selectively succinct.

  4. 7 TheBigN 14 March 2009 at 2:41 pm

    “I did want to check out the cat spinoff film, but I was told it sucked. :(”

    It didn’t suck, but it’s much more fantastical than Whisper of the Heart, if that’s not your thing. The Baron is awesome in it though. Of the two, I’d definitely rank Whisper better than Cat Returns.

    Whisper is one of my favorite Ghibli movies, probably because I could understand a lot of what Shizuku deals with. That and lol John Denver.

  5. 8 Jesus159159159 15 March 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Its good to hear more people enjoying this film, it happens to be my all-time fav :3. Too bad the director died young (Yoshifumi Kondou) and if I recall correctly, it was his first, and last :(

    …not to be picky, but:

    None of the musicians in that scene claimed to be very goo(not that I could tell)

    :3 =3

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