Redwall Abbey, image c. Christopher Denise (illustrator)
The 1995 Studio Ghibli film Mimi wo Sumaseba (耳をすませば) (marketed in the West as Whisper of the Heart), directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and written by Hayao Miyazaki, follows a young girl named Tsukishima Shizuku on her journey to finding and dedicating herself to her dreams and ambitions. The themes of struggling in school and navigating love for the first time lend themselves to the narrative, rather than dominating it, and help further develop the themes of creative ambition and the artistic process in both Shizuku’s own life and the lives of the people she meets along the way. Though it is also a story of her friendship with Yuko, her mentorship with Mr. Nishi, and her budding relationship with Seiji, the narrative is undeniably centred around Shizuku’s life, and through that perspective, casts a new and colourful light on those surrounding her.
From the beginning, the film establishes the sense of familiarity and routine in Shizuku’s life. The first scene provides the audience with a view of the city at night, and the neighbourhood in which Shizuku lives. Her walk back home and the motions she goes through after returning (such as pouring tea for her family and reading at the kitchen table) show a part of her daily life, as well as the state she is currently in. Shizuku is comfortable—perhaps too comfortable—where she is, and knows her part of the world, and her part in the world. The first change that leads to a chain of changes occurs right away. She recognises a name on the cards in the books she has borrowed, and her curiosity is piqued when she realises a certain Amasawa Seiji has taken out and read these library books before her.
Shizuku’s personality and interests are established early on in the film, giving the audience an immediate and strong grasp on the sort of person she starts off as. She loves books, especially those that venture into realms of fantasy and fairy tale, and is a bright and curious girl. She is also quite transparent, and is honest and straightforward about her thoughts and feelings to everyone around her, from parents to classmates. (“How can you talk like that with a straight face?” someone later asks her, somewhat flustered by her honesty. “Why not?” Shizuku replies cheerfully. “It’s what I think.”) Though there is no sense of direction in her life at the very start of the movie in regards to her future, Shizuku is clearly an imaginative girl, and is enchanted by the promise of magic in her everyday life.
Even the most odd or commonplace events in her life—such as running into a cat on the train— are viewed through this lens of possibility. When she meets Moon on the train, she immediately begins to speak to him, and, driven by intense curiosity, runs after him when he gets off the train. “And it felt just like the start of a story…” she laments, after she loses sight of him. She ultimately chooses to follow the cat when she spots him again, and her wild goose chase leads her to the World Emporium, an antique shop she later refers to as “a place where stories start”. Things that capture her imagination—Moon, the grandfather clock in the World Emporium, the regal cat statue (affectionately named the Baron), and the sweeping view of the city from behind the shop—all leave an impression on her, and later on serve as inspiration for her story.
The first hint of her interest in writing is planted early in the story, when she shows her friend Yuko her ongoing attempt to translate the song Country Roads from English to Japanese. She laughs with Yuko over the second version she has drafted—jokingly titled Concrete Roads—but when a mysterious boy stumbles upon it and teases her about her light-hearted parody, she responds with mortified anger. As she gets to know him, however, she warms to him— and realises that he is Amasawa Seiji, and the grandson of Nishi Shiro, the proprietor of World Emporium. Through their slowly budding friendship, she discovers his love for the violin. She watches him carve one of his violins, and then listens to him play, marvelling at his passion for music and love for the instrument.
The moment they share is surprisingly vulnerable, as this is the first scene in which one of the characters shows their dream to the other. And in the following scene, Shizuku, too, lets herself be vulnerable. She sings (accompanied by Seiji’s violin, and Mr. Nishi and his friends’ instrumental accompaniment) her translation of Country Roads. One line stands out in particular: “Country roads/When tomorrow comes, I’ll be like I always am/Want to go back there, can’t go back there/Fare thee well/Country roads”. This line can serve as foreshadowing for Shizuku’s eventual development. When she eventually decides to dedicate herself to her dream, she is still the person that she has always been: bright, curious, honest, and imaginative. But by that point, she has grown beyond the child she was at the beginning of the story, and cannot go back to exactly who she used to be.
As mentioned before, the film begins with Shizuku in her comfort zone, without a sense of direction. She is in the middle of exam season, but is not remotely worried about her exams. The only foreseeable destination ahead of her—that continuing her education—is one that has been given to her, rather than chosen by her. For Shizuku is not only in the middle of exam season. She is in the middle of her high school entrance examinations, the results of which could greatly affect the course of her academic and post-secondary life, but which she does not worry over or pay much attention to, despite these stakes. Rather than taking the time to study, she spends her summer buried in the books she so loves. It is not until she meets Seiji that she begins to question her goals, and wonder about her own future.
When Seiji walks Shizuku home after performing Country Roads, he confides to her that his dream is to make violins. In order to do so, he wants to attend a special school in Italy, rather than attend high school in Japan. His parents, he explains, are against it, but his grandfather supports his dream. “It must be wonderful to know what you want to do,” Shizuku says wistfully. “I haven’t got any idea. I just go from one day to the next.” Seiji, however, counters that there is no guarantee that he can go study in Italy, and that his parents are so opposed to the idea that they argue about it regularly. “Even if I go there, I won’t know whether or not I have the talent until I actually try”, he tells her. This thought, along with his parting words (“You have a talent for poetry”), affect Shizuku so deeply that she later asks her older sister Shiho how she figured out her future. To this, her sister replies that she’s still figuring it out as she studies in university. It is a learning process—for both Shiho and Shizuku.
However, the seed watered by Seiji’s dream, and the admiration she feels towards him for his commitment to it, does not sprout shoots and leaves until Seiji comes to find her with news. He tells Shizuku with excitement and anticipation that he and his parents have finally come to an agreement. His father has caved, and will allow him to take a trial run. The success of the two-month apprenticeship his father has approved will determine whether or not Seiji can continue to study in Italy. “[The man in charge of my apprenticeship] is strict,” Seiji says. “He’ll see whether or not I have the talent for it—and if I have the patience to stick it out”. Though the thought of their inevitable parting brings Shizuku sadness, she is happy for him, and congratulates him on getting one step closer to fulfilling his dream.
Later that same day, Yuko tells Shizuku that she has a talent for writing. “All the underclassmen liked your translation of Country Roads,” she says, and Shizuku—inspired by Seiji’s words—replies eagerly, “He’s going to find out if he has talent. Well, so will I!” She resolves with newfound determination to write her own story, the story that has been growing in her mind, without regard for her exams. The seed planted by her love for stories then begins to show green buds, but there is a long way for Shizuku to go before it can flower. Like any plant, it requires sun, nutrients, and water to feed it, but it also must be tested by rough winds and harsh winters to see if it truly has the strength to survive.
This journey also mirrors the changes in Shizuku and Seiji’s relationship. Though rocky at first, the respect and understanding that grows from their interactions eventually turns into something more. Their relationship develops naturally, and is best expressed in two of the moments they share: the Country Roads performance, where they combine their talents to make music, and a scene taking place before Seiji’s departure, where Shizuku is doing research in the library, and Seiji comes to sit with her. In both scenes, Shizuku and Seiji observe the other in their element, admire the time and effort they are willing to dedicate to their dream, and offer their silent support. (Later on, when they decide to fully commit to a relationship, they make the decision using the same steady resolve they showed in committing to their dreams, and the trust they have come to feel for each other.)
Whisper of the Heart does not treat the dreams—both concerning love and artistic ambitions—of its young characters as wishful thinking, or as flimsy fantasies to be chased after carelessly. Mr. Nishi, who becomes Shizuku’s friend and mentor figure, listens to her express her doubts about writing, and patiently explains to her that she, like a craftsman, should not expect perfection on her first try. He proceeds to show her a piece of mica slate with beryl hidden in its core, and Shizuku is fascinated by the way the light penetrates and shines through it. “You and Seiji are like this stone,” he tells her. “Rough, unpolished, still natural… the rough stone is inside of you. You have to find it and polish it. It takes time and effort.” Like the pursuit of their dreams, their relationship, too, requires time and effort—and an enduring, unwavering commitment to each other, even as distance separates them.
Mr. Nishi’s reminder that art requires time and effort grounds Shizuku’s expectations for herself and her writing. It also gives her insight into the journey an artist must take to grow and refine their craft. But still she wonders out loud, “What if there isn’t a beautiful crystal inside of me?” This scene is Shizuku’s turning point: she quickly answers her own question with determination, uttering a line that points the way ahead for her: “But I want to write. And you’ll be the first to read it.” This is Shizuku’s first declaration of purpose and desire, and lays the ground for the rest of her journey, since she chooses from then on to spend her time researching and writing. Before Seiji leaves for Italy, she promises him that she will “do [her] best while [he’s] gone]”, and immediately gets to work.
The time and energy Shizuku puts into writing every day takes a toll on her grades, as she stays up late writing and is consumed with new ideas during review classes. When her parents confront her, she only tells them that this matter is urgent, and that through it, she is testing herself—though she does not specify what she is testing, or why she is testing it. Shiho is incredulous, but her father recognises that this is the first time Shizuku has put her mind to something and is diligently working toward it. He also acknowledges that everyone has a different path, and suggests that they give her a chance to work on whatever she is working on—though he warns her gently that it is “not easy to walk [her] own road. [She] only has [herself] to blame [if it doesn’t work out]”.
Nevertheless, Shizuku perseveres, and brings her first draft to Mr. Nishi in a state of self-doubt and anxiety. With shaking hands, she waits at the back of the shop and leaves Mr. Nishi to read her finished story on his own. But when Mr. Nishi sincerely compliments her work, she reacts with distress and disbelief, protesting that she “couldn’t write [what she wanted to write]”. It is here that Mr. Nishi reminds her of how the creative process (much like the course of love) never runs smoothly—especially at the very beginning. “It’s rough, blunt, unfinished… just like Seiji’s violin,” he says. “You’ve shown me the rough stone you’ve just cut out of the rock. You’ve worked hard. You’re wonderful. There’s no need to rush now. Take your time and polish it.”
The film could stop here, having shown the difficulty of creating something beautiful, and the determination and drive required to refine and improve it, but it drives the point further. “Wanting [to accomplish my dream] isn’t enough,” Shizuku replies despondently. “I have to learn more…” She fears the climb ahead of her, but she also fears that she is falling behind while Seiji is forging ahead in Italy, as Seiji has known his dream for a long time, and she has just discovered hers. But Mr. Nishi warmly makes her a celebratory dinner and gives her his stone, offering her the encouragement she needs to keep going. When she returns home, she informs her family that her “trials are over… for now”, acknowledging the fact that she has won the first battle, and must gather her energy for whatever may come next.
A sleep-deprived Shizuku is surprised the next morning by Seiji, who arrived home on an earlier flight than planned. As the main plot (that of Shizuku’s understanding of herself, her craft, and her abilities) has been resolved, the following scene ties up the romantic subplot. This subplot is interwoven with and is inseparable from the main plot, thanks to the way the two encourage and care for each other. They have taken their time, and have allowed their feelings room to grow. The romance between them is one built first on friendship, then on mutual admiration and affection, and is further strengthened by the hopes and worries they have shared with each other. Though they clashed at the beginning of the film, they eventually accepted their similarities, and came to push and inspire each other to pursue their respective dreams.
The final scene shows Seiji bringing Shizuku on his bike to watch the sunrise. When they reach a steep hill, he tells her that he had “made up his mind [he] was going to ride [her] up the hill”, but Shizuku responds with indignant exasperation, “That’s not fair! I’m no man’s burden!” She jumps off the bike to help push it from behind. The image of the two of them climbing the hill together is one that perfectly represents the caring, attentive, and self-sacrificial nature of their relationship. When they reach the top, Seiji expresses regret for not doing more to support Shizuku’s dream, upon which Shizuku tells him that he was the one who inspired her to start in the first place. “I’m glad I pushed myself,” she says. “I understand myself better now. I’m going to study hard and go on to high school.”
The film ends with a spontaneous but earnest proposal from Seiji, who must soon return to Italy for another ten years of schooling. Though impulsive and seemingly out of the blue, the resulting decision to commit to a serious relationship is one that ties in with their dreams. They have just begun to see the fruits of their labour—Shizuku in her writing and her first-ever novel, Seiji in his violin-making and his first taste of apprenticeship— after being tested by mentors, self-doubt, the distance separating them, and the other storms that have come their way. Their feelings for each other have likewise been tested for the first time, and both are aware that they will continue to be tested again and again, as Shizuku and Seiji continue their studies. However, both of them are willing to commit to loving each other and waiting for each other, the same way they have committed themselves to their dreams.
But as important as Seiji may be to Shizuku’s journey, the film is, after all, about Shizuku. It is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a romance. Shizuku’s state of mind at the start of the story is one that is still firmly rooted in childhood. Many of her habits, decisions, and ideals are still those that are very much innocent and childish. The events that occur over the course of the film nudge Shizuku out of her comfort zone, and oftentimes force her to think and act in new and challenging ways. Aside from her artistic journey, her best friend’s unrequited love for their friend Sugimura, and Sugimura’s confession of love to Shizuku herself force Shizuku to be brutally honest in a way she has never had to be before. The environment at home undergoes changes as well, with her sister returning from her trip, falling back into family life, arguing with Shizuku about her education, and deciding to move out of the family home. Shizuku learns to adapt, and to continue loving with a steadfast love, despite the obstacles that she encounters.
As she responds to these challenges and embraces her dream of writing, Shizuku sheds her childishness little by little. But she continues to retain her childlikeness—a virtue that is essential to her character, and to her art. Her imagination and her ability to notice the beauty of the world around her are what brings her story to life, and are what inspires her to write. Just like the nostalgia and comfort of home expressed in Country Roads, her childhood is never completely cut off from her. She can always return to the place where her stories first began, and she can carry the innocence of her youth with her into the future. Shizuku has learned the value of endurance and dedication in art and love, but one thing remains the same: though she has, as an artist and a girl, come of age in her own way, she still chooses to view the world in the same hopeful, wondering way, looking carefully for the magic in everyday life and listening closely to the secrets hidden in the mundane, the song the world around her sings—and to the whisper of her own heart.
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time embroidering very small flowers, scribbling frantically in her notebook, watching period dramas, and rereading all her favourite childhood books (such as Redwall and Lord of the Rings), as well as discovering new favourite authors (such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Jan Karon, and Elizabeth Goudge). You can also find her in her little corner of the world: herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
Hayao Miyazaki. “耳をすませば (Whisper of the Heart).” 15 July 1995.