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Whisper of the Heart

Year: 1995
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki/Aoi Hiiragi/Cindy Davis/Donald H. Hewitt
Cast: Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, James B Sikking, Ashley Tisdale, Cary Elwes, Dee Bradley Baker

I've talked before about how much more impactful Studio Ghibli's films are when they're about the magical and fantastical like Ponyo or Howl's Moving Castle, but even their stories with no supernatural or otherworldly elements are head and shoulders above most animated fare. The more films I watch from the storied animation house, the more I'm realising that its creative manifesto isn't necessarily making the world enchanting but in making them feel like you could reach right through the screen and live there.

This is a love story about a teenage girl and some alchemy in both the visual style, the dialogue and the characterisation makes you fall in love with Shizuku (Brittany Snow in the English version) just like Seiji (David Gallagher) does.

Shizuku is an average teenager in modern day Tokyo who sleeps in too late, always making her late for school, studies a bit too hard, loves books a bit too much and generally goes on with her life in her flat with her busy but loving parents and an older sister who's come home from university. A fiction and song writer in her spare time, Shizuku is also composing a song for a school production with her friends based on John Denver classic Take Me Home Country Road.

Mostly, she spends a lot of time at the library, but when she discovers that all the books she's been getting have already been checked out by the same person, Shizuku fancies he's a kindred spirit her age.

One day, on the way to the library, Shizuku comes across a portly cat with a condescending look on its face that she follows, becoming more intrigued when it boards a train. Getting on the train too, Shizuku follows it all the way to its neighbourhood, going inside the antique shop it finally stops at and finding a treasure trove of forgotten paraphernalia. The item that really captures her interest is The Baron, the cat statuette that becomes the subject of Ghibli's 2002 movie The Cat Returns.

A romantic at heart, Shizuku imagines the story that becomes the background of the later film where The Baron, wearing his finery and top hat, has been separated from his long lost love, and she befriends the elderly store owner Nishi, who's thrilled to have her rapt attention while he tells her stories about his various treasures.

When relationship entanglements among her friends at school get too much, Shizuku goes back to the store and there meets Seiji, Nishi's handsome, amateur violin maker grandson who she's seen at school and already butted heads with when she's caught him reading her work after she's left on of her notebooks behind. In short order it turns out not just that Seiji did indeed read all the books at the library before her, but that he has a crush on her.

The only dark spot is that he's been accepted at a prestigious violin making school in Italy and has to leave for two months. Shizuku decides to throw herself into her writing during that time, but her schoolwork suffers and the stress of being away from Seiji takes a toll. Her only respite is Nishi and the store, imagining the fate of The Baron and his lost love.

That description of the plot doesn't sound terribly thrilling (and in this case the script could have been a little tighter), and under any other circumstances another fiftysomething male like me might not respond to the romantic foibles of teenagers. But the characters are so authentic and beautiful it's impossible not to be drawn into their struggles, their interactions with each other seamlessly natural and honest. Second – and something that's only just occurred to me in the time since seeing it – it's missing those particular hallmarks of American fiction about teenagers, the smart alecky, pop culture-driven modern attitude where adults are all idiots who just have no idea how hard life can be.

But as always from Studio Ghibli, it's the tactile nature of the visuals that stands out. Even using hand-drawn cel animation with static background plates, every location and depiction of surfaces, 3D space and the movement within it feels real and lived in.

It's in the tiny details like the way Shizuku has to twist her body to climb onto a pile of old shipping palettes to jump over a fence while following Muta (the cat), or the way she can't quite reach her bedside lamp from her bed so she has to prop herself up on her elbow and scrabble for the switch. Plus the long and wide shots, despite having the hand-drawn quality of light and shadow, are gorgeously full of the detail of a city going about its business.

If the story of teenagers and their silly crushes doesn't draw you in, the lushly gorgeous images will.

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