By now, we tend to know what follows after our heroine, a wide-eyed ingénue with quick wit and fiery temper, chances to meet a mysterious stranger on the train… Of course, since Yoshifumi Kondō’s Whisper of the Heart is a Studio Ghibli production, written by Hayao Miyazaki, the stranger is an fat, imperious cat—and the heroine, Shizuku Tsukishima, hasn’t hit high school. What comes of their first encounter both is and isn’t expected: there’s the bookish young girl’s coming of age story with its requisite magical interludes, but also a complex and solidly real world drawn around it—a family works and bickers in a cluttered apartment, crushes are announced and world-endingly denied, childhood ambitions begin to coalesce into something recognizably adult and palpably difficult. John Denver’s “Country Roads” is performed several times by Japanese schoolgirls. And all of this, “Country Roads” included, is painted and gorgeous—Tokyo exurbs twinkling at night, cypresses, stacks and stacks of books, and a boy stooped over a worktable, carving violins.
It’s the boy, Seiji Amasawa, who together with the cat sets the plot going—his name is on all the books Shizuku gets from the school library, and it’s his grandfather’s shop to which the commuting cat leads her, then conveniently disappearing. The shop is full of the kind of stuff Shizuku loves: in the showroom, a cat-headed dandy statuette called The Baron, and in the basement, Seiji himself, working on his violins. He’s determined to go to Italy to learn the craft, and Shizuku becomes inspired. With the single-mindedness only available to children and geniuses, she sets to work writing, determined to prove to herself and the rest what she can do. Kondō, who worked tirelessly (and died in 1998), surely approved.