Thanks to a very wonderful daughter who bought me a compilation of Studio Ghibli films for Mother’s day (don’t you love it when they ignore all the slippers and bath salts and get you what you really want?) I have been soaking myself in anime magic.
I thought I knew Studio Ghibli. I’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle, Nausicaa of the Winds, Spirited Away, et al, and I loved every one. But Whisper of the Heart caught me unawares. It is a simple love story between two school kids, and yet it has all the magic and beauty of the other films.
Shizuku is a fourteen year old schoolgirl, who finds that the books she borrows from the school library have all been borrowed by the same boy. He is Seiji, who hopes to be a violin maker, like his grandfather. Shizuku falls in love with him, and went he tells her he going to Italy to study violin making, she feels as if she is being left behind while he is finding his destiny.
Shizuku and Seiji, kindred spirits
It starts her wondering what she can achieve in life, so she starts writing a story about a toy cat called the Baron (which resides in the grandfather’s house) and his lost love, and the search for a shining treasure hidden in rough and unpolished rock.
That’s all there is to it, really. Shizuku lives a very ordinary life – her father comes home tired from work, her mother is studying to try and improve the family’s prospects, and her sister is overworked between helping her mother in the house and holding down a part time job. In the midst of all this, Shizuku starts dropping her grades at school in her rush to finish the story before Seijo returns from Italy.
Although worried, her parents agree that if this is so important to her, she must continue. Her father calls her his “little warrior”, and all her mother asks is that she join them at dinner again. Shizuku stays up late, writing her story and taking herself into a magical world where the Baron comes to life.
The magical Baron
The art is heartbreakingly beautiful, simple scenes of suburban life sprinkled with the magic that is always present, if we stop and look – the fireflies dancing in the light, the simply homely pleasures of family life, the view from the top of a hill – all drawn with such a sure hand and a loving eye.
The beauty of ordinary things
This is no corny shallow teenage rom com, even if John Denver’s Country Roads form part of the score. One of Shizuku’s school projects is to translate the lyrics into Japanese, and it simply adds to the charm of the film. Shizuku is no wan heroine drooping around with her heart on her sleeve – she decides to do something great all by herself, and when Seijo is manfully trying to ride his bike uphill with her on the back, urging her to stay put, she leaps off and cries “I am no man’s burden!” Pushing him up the hill she says, “I want to be of use.”
These characters are so achingly real, I was in love with them myself by the end of the film. This is what the Japanese do with anime – no saccharine cartoons, but portraits of real life that leave you with a different view of the world.
To my mind, anime like this, and the Final Fantasy games, are where you will find true philosophy today. Here, director Yoshifumi Kondou and writer Hayao Miyazaki are saying that life truly is beautiful even in the most mundane and ordinary of places – school, suburb, city streets – it’s all about how you live it.