Whisper is the only Studio Ghibli feature film directed by Yoshifumi Kondou. Although adapted from the manga by Hayao Miyazaki, responsibility for the film’s direction was passed on to Kondou, an animation supervisor on several other Ghibli projects. A few years after Whisper’s release, Kondou died.
Precocious, gifted, utterly dedicated children are abundant in Ghibli films but not often are they both supernaturally powerless and portrayed in an everyday physical environment. With the exception of an aerial fantasy sequence (apparently directed by Miyazaki), Whisper is staged in realistic suburban locations (Shizuku’s classroom, the school library, the playground, her home, on the train, an antique repair shop) that are populated by regular human beings. These factors lend the story a much stronger dose of realism than many other Ghibli works and provide the grounded platform from which it contrastively engages our imagination. It allows us to be brought very close to the throughts and feelings of Shizuku, where we can share, or inquire into, her uncertainties about the future.
The other major character, Seiji, is a violin-making apprentice who happens to have read all of the books that Shizuku borrows from the library (similar to the plot hook used in Love Letter, released the same year). Seiji’s skill with his craft impresses upon Shizuku the notion that she lacks a similar talent or ability. She too wants to devote herself to something.
The one kernel of the fantastic meshed into this arises from this concern of Shizuku’s. She imagines that the Cat Baron, a figurine from the antique store, transports her on a journey where he tells her how he was magically created and how he lost the love of his life. This becomes the basis for a story that Shizuku determines to write. And write she does, disregarding school, Seiji, the complaints of her sister and other distractions. Only after she has finished and allowed Seiji’s artisan father to read her novella-length story does she feel like she has done or completed something worthwhile. We are led to surmise that Shizuku’s ferocious creative activity has finally brought her subjective anxieties into relief.
All this may sound like some kind of nationalist assertion of the valuability of an ostensibly Japanese work ethic, but if so it’s an incredibly distant theme in relation to matters like the enthusiasm and joy for the technical application of one’s creative abilities. Other coming-of-age films rarely believe so vehemently, if idealistically, in the artistic ambitions of the young people they represent.
I was truly surprised by the remarkable harmony of stubborn reality and daydreamish light fantasy in this work, which plays one against the other as if both are absolutely vital to human experience. Don’t be put off by the absence of Miyazaki as auteur, this is a stunning Studio Ghibli product and in any case might represent the core of Miyazakian artistic ideals more transparently than any of his other films.
Just as a final note, you’ll probably want to see this before The Cat Returns, which features the Cat Baron and Muta the fat cat in a new adventure.