We’re proud to present a guest post today by Eric Reinders, a professor of East Asian religions, religion and fantasy, and fortune-telling in the Department of Religion of Emory University. He has authored books on Christianity in China, Medieval Chinese Buddhism, and the films of Miyazaki. His current project is on Chinese translations of Tolkien. Under his nom de plume, Alveric Yates, he is a prolific amateur cartoonist and novelist. We also encourage you check out his student work on Studio Ghibli.
When I first watched Whisper of the Heart (1995), my basic reaction was: it’s a well-made but underwhelming film, but then I learned there was a sort of sequel, and I much preferred The Cat Returns. Now I think I would reverse that assessment. Miyazaki is listed as screenwriter of Whisper, based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. I don’t know the source material, but the film certainly bears the imprint of Miyazaki. It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, who had worked extensively on Ghibli products but died in 1998.
Whisper is a girl-meets-boy story in which the girl sees herself as a character in a romantic fairy tale. During the film, Shizuku moves from a naïve romanticism to a more realistic and stronger emotional state, based on getting to know a real boy and on her own hard work.
The fairy-tale theme is clearly established. Her pursuit of the cat Moon is surely reminiscent of Alice and the rabbit, though upwards rather than downwards. She says, “It felt just like the start of a story,” which invites us to think in those terms. We see how she cries while reading fairy tales. Her obsession with reading the names in library cards seems to be a way to find community (someone else who thinks like she does), but it is so indirect, it also signals her delusions—it’s a way of avoiding actual people. She sees a name repeated, and immediately begins to construct a fantasy boy.
Her close friend Harada is concerned with looking pretty, and boys. She’s got a love letter from one boy but fancies another one, Sugimura. During the film, Shizuku has the painful experience of being the object of Sugimura’s romantic attention and not liking it, having to tell the boy, we’re just friends. If this all seems a bit trite, it is meant to contrast with what happens between her and Seiji. Theirs is a classic love story trajectory: They hate each other at the start. But as they get to know each other, it turns into a real relationship, not based on gazing from afar or inventing a fairy-tale hero.
Yet the ending returns to a classic romantic trope. How do we take the abrupt ending? He proposes marriage to her, and yet she’s not even in high school? Surely we know it probably won’t turn out that way. But the genre expectations of the romantic fairy tale oblige us to end with “and they lived happily ever after,” even if we doubt it.
Shizuku’s developing maturity is also related to creative work. The greatest area of resonance with Miyazaki’s films is the conversations between Shizuku and others about creative work, which continue themes previously explored in Kiki.
I started The Moral Narratives of Hayao Miyazaki with the assertion that all stories have morals. I tried to distill what I thought were the key lessons of Miyazaki’s films. Of all Miyazaki’s favorite themes, Whisper speaks most directly to the theme of creative inspiration—how to maintain the joy of creation when it becomes work. How to weather the ups and downs of discouragement. We saw Kiki struggle when she loses her “magic,” and Ursula speaks plainly about getting through periods of loss of self-confidence and enthusiasm. In Castle, we saw Shita and Pazu justify their existence on the pirate plane by throwing themselves into work (as assistant mechanic and as cook). In Porco, we saw Fio’s fierce dedication to design pay off in a better plane for Porco, even as men continue to objectify and trivialize her. In Mononoke, we saw the otherwise universally shunned lepers finding value in their skillful craft of gun-making for Eboshi. Over and over Miyazaki presents images of work: It’s not easy, you’re not the best at it, you might lose all desire to do it, but if you can weather the storms and persist, your life can be transformed by your hard work.
So in Whisper, we see Seiji making his violins; Shizuku is understandably impressed, but she has no eye for it. The amateur or beginner fails to discern quality; she has enthusiasm but it doesn’t mean very much in reality. By contrast, Seiji has seen just how much work is ahead of him, and has no illusions about himself. He seems to be depressed in comparison. But when he says, “There are lots as good as me,” he’s just being honest.
Miyazaki has said that Kiki was partly inspired by the young artists coming to Tokyo to find work at Ghibli or elsewhere. At home they might be the best cartoonist in their class, and everyone says how good their art is; but then they enter the hard economy of skill in Tokyo, they find they are not nearly as good as they thought they were, and sometimes they quit, or they endure misery and doubt.
In Kiki, the extended second encounter with Ursula is the conceptual core of the film (although in this case the subtitles tell a different story to the dub—go with the subtitles). In Kiki, the story makes direct parallels between Kiki’s flying and Ursula’s painting (and Mr. Osono’s baking, and Tombo’s airplane-making). In Whisper, we put in direct parallel Seiji’s violin-making and Shizuku’s fiction writing. What Shizuku has to learn from Seiji is long-range persistence: she can’t expect to write a great story on her first try. Even if the kindly old man is happy to praise her first attempt, we know it can’t be that good. How about if she submitted it to a publisher? We would fear for her, receiving rejection letters as almost all writers do. She’s going to have to learn how to endure, persist, and hold onto the spark that set her off in the first place.