This past Valentine’s Day, the Amherst College Film Society had a screening for Yoshifumi Kondō’s “Whisper of the Heart” (1995). This unique love story by Studio Ghibli follows our young protagonist Shizuku (Yōko Honna) as she stumbles through the challenges of adolescence in the outskirts of Tokyo. Instead of trivializing teenage struggles, Kondō validates the existential anxiety which accompanies the transition into adulthood.
From awe-inspiring cityscapes to the fantastical floating islands of Shizuku’s dream world, Ghibli’s hand-drawn animation style transforms every frame into a work of art. The heavy green tint and abundance of trees, bushes, and grass that occupy each frame breathe life into the cityscapes Shizuku inhabits. The ridiculous attention to detail that accompanies her travel pushes viewers to re-examine the most unremarkable aspect of their day — commuting.
In fact, one of the film’s longest and most important sequences springs from a simple errand. On her way to deliver her dad’s lunch, Shizuku runs into a cat riding the subway and begins to talk to the cat. When she discovers that the cat is getting off at her stop, Shizuku decides to follow the cat through unfamiliar and quiet neighborhoods. The cat leads her to an antique shop where she encounters the baron, a cat statuette that inspires her writing later in the film. Shizuku’s physical act of meandering off her intended path is what catalyzes her journey to pursue her dream.
At this same antique shop, Shizuku befriends Seiji (Issei Takahashi), a boy her age who dreams of handcrafting violins in Italy. Shizuku and Seiji quickly fall in love, and Seiji’s conviction to study in Italy causes Shizuku to reflect on her own goals. Upon doing so, she begins to fear that she does not have a clear purpose like Seiji. As a result, Shizuku experiences feelings of inadequacy, adopting a mindset that is common among many people her age: believing they’re not good enough.
While it would be easy to tell a stereotypical success story that alleviates this feeling, Kondō provides us with a different resolution. Rather than associating self-worth with material success, Kondō emphasizes the importance of one’s willingness to try, showing that worthiness is much more than the success or failure of one’s actions. Although Shizuku initially perceives Seiji as having it all figured out, she eventually recognizes that this is not the case. During a conversation with her friend Yuko (Maiko Kayama), Shizuku recalls that Seiji had said, “There’s lots as good as me.” In this moment Shizuku realizes that Seiji, like her, doesn’t have it all figured out. What makes him different, however, is his drive to pursue his dream, regardless of potential failure. Seiji’s resolve inspires Shizuku, who concludes, “He’s going to find out if he has talent. Well, so will I!” Shizuku and Seiji’s relationship reminds audiences that happiness doesn’t have to come from success and finality, but in pursuing the things you love and embracing the uncertainty and failure that accompanies doing so.
Just like when Shizuku decides to follow the cat, she decides to explore the unknown territory of writing and relishes in the process as opposed to the final goal. She learns that success isn’t in achievement, but in self-fulfillment. You can’t be successful unless you define what success means to you. And in order to do this, you have to explore unknown territory. No one can teach it to you, and you won’t get it from your parents or from school. You have to follow the cat. You’re not thinking about where the cat came from or where it will go; the cat represents a powerful instinct, compelling you to strive for your goals.
This film is so special because it inspires us to dream, even in the face of uncertainty and the obstacles of daily life. Shizuku has validated our own desires to pursue meaningful creative endeavors in the face of building pressures to spend our time more “productively.” From film production to clothing design, it’s easy to dismiss our amateur endeavors as a waste of time. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever reach the levels of the greats that we aspire to, but as long as we trust the process and do what we love, it won’t matter. “Whisper of the Heart” reminds us that success is not marked by the results of our effort but by our willingness to make the effort in the first place.
Correction, March 2, 2022: A previous version of this article also misspelled Yuko’s name as Yuuko. It also credited the English voice actors for the characters instead of the Japanese voice actors, even though the review is for the original Japanese version of the film.