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).