Whisper of the Heart (If You Listen Closely)

This is one of Miyazaki's finest works. He wrote the script, but the director is Yoshifumi Kondō – a rising star at Studio Ghibli who tragically died before he could make more films. It's a mostly realistic story about a bright high school girl who has to navigate a love triangle, the pressures of studying and her own budding abilities as a creative writer. The love triangle is almost a Shakespearian comedy, with lots of characters liking the wrong person or not realising who they really like. It culminates in a powerful scene in which Shizuku rejects a suitor, after which this plot strand is largely abandoned. Instead the film turns to explore the tension between artistic ambition and the daily demands of life, school and work.

Shizuku's relationship with her mysterious classmate (who hangs out with his antiquarian grandfather and wants to learn how to make violins in Italy) turns into an intellectual partnership as much as it is a young romance. Exposure to this new household filled with intriguing objects and where people have the opportunity to develop their creative talents is a spur for Shizuku to finish writing her own first story, to the point where she has to abandon studying for her exams. The effort is not cost-free – Shizuku's family become concerned about her behaviour and her grades. But in a heartwarming scene Shizuku's father intervenes on her behalf, giving her the support she needs to complete her personal project.

The film is conscious of the class dimensions to all this. Shizuku lives in a cramped apartment where she has to share a room with her older sister. Her lovesick best friend lives in a mansion by comparison, and her paramour Seiji also commutes from a fancier neighbourhood. Shizuku's mother is studying for an MA and her sister is saving money so she can move into her own apartment – both are focused on getting on in the world and find Shizuku's diversions from her schoolwork baffling. Her father is a librarian, and content with his job and position in life, which allows him to be more supportive of his daughter's artistic development. But it's clear that Shizuku doesn't have some of the advantages of her school friends, which stack the odds against her succeeding as a writer.

While the film is a melodrama, it's refreshingly grounded about these obstacles and burdens. The romance between Shizuku and Seiji is founded on an acknowledgement of their particular creative interests, and the understanding that they are to be nurtured despite the anguish of separation that might involve. It is a partnership in which each supports the other to fulfill themselves. The film's final scene, in which Shizuku and Seiji race up a hill to catch the sunrise, becomes a metaphor for their relationship, with Shizuku getting off Seiji's bike to push together towards their shared goal.

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