Whisper of the Heart is not typical of Studio Ghibli. It starts with a John Denver song, “Country Roads.” John Denver’s sincere folk provides an anthem for the film. In a way, it’s the perfect soundtrack. Whisper of the Heart is the John Denver song of Ghibli movies, personal, open-hearted, obvious, and engaging. The characters resurrect the song throughout the film. Revising it, replaying it and reinterpreting it. Though the original lyrics ultimately mean nothing to the characters or the audience, the mood and tone of heart-on-your-sleeve longing provide the essential ingredient.
Ultimately, on the My Neighbor Totoro to Princess Mononoke Ghibli intensity scale, Whisper of the Heart falls closer to Totoro. Its value, like Totoro or Spirited Away, lies in the depiction of a believable child character. Much like Spirited Away‘s Chihiro, Shizuku makes honest, realistic choices based on her age and situation. Unlike Chihiro there is no fantasy to distract us from those choices and Shizuku comes across better for it. Like Totoro, Whisper of the Heart is made up solely of good people making choices and not defeating evil or some other trumped up antagonism. The drama in the story is small and therefore more true to the everyday experiences of its audience than any other Ghibli film.
There is a caveat. The romance between teenagers, though depicted truthfully, feels unnecessarily lauded. How often are children encouraged to believe in fairy tales, as the movie puts it, of princes and princesses destined to fall in love? In a film that takes so much effort to depict the reality of being an artist, the veneer of reality around finding a life-partner is disastrously thin. Had this story been simply the birth of a writer, it would excel. Taking on a romance that is not in anyway empowering for the participants and ending the movie with a proposal are missteps.
Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay of this film. It’s well known that Miyazaki, to quote his son, “gets zero marks as a father, but full marks as a director of animated films.” In other words, he knows how to be an artist, but he may not have mastered the art of being a person. In a reflection of this we see his characters have deep inner lives and shallow relationships. Maybe Whisper of the Heart, with it’s valiant striving and clumsy bonding, is the story of an artist after all.