It's over an hour into Ghibli Studios "Whisper Of The Heart" before anything fantastical happens. Up until that point (when a dapper looking upright cat called The Baron holds a young girl's hand and begins flying through candy-coloured clouds), everything has been rooted in reality. No mystical beasts or talking animals or wandering spirits - just a confused teenager, her family, friends and those darn boys. The Baron, however, is the product of that teenager's imagination, so the story remains firmly in the real world and outside of the stock and trade of Ghibli's creative fantasy worlds. Given that, how come this fairly straightforward "coming of age" story about young love and choosing one's path in life is just as beautiful and even magical a film as anything else the Anime studio has put out?
Shizuku is in her early teens and doesn't really take her studies seriously. She's creative, though, and dabbles in writing by making up her own lyrics to songs like John Denver's "Country Roads". She also devours books and is on a first name basis with staff at the library. She begins to notice that all the books she's borrowing have been previously checked out by the same person - someone named Seiji. However, just as she begins working on that mystery, she meets a boy. He seems sure of himself, calls her lyrics "corny" and absolutely infuriates her. He even ends up being the grandson of the owner of an old trinket store she's just discovered (where she has found a cat statue called The Baron). Of course, it turns out that he and Seiji are one and the same. He's been trying to get Shizuku to notice him and decided to do it by putting his name in all the books she was bound to check out.
The simple nature of the story is one of its strengths. It allows us time with the characters and so doesn't rush from plot point to plot point. We get to spend time in Shizuku's cramped apartment with her bemused Dad, perpetually distracted Mom and bossy sister so that we get a better idea why her attentions have not yet galvanized towards any particular goals. Both The Baron and Seiji provide some inspiration though - the former as a jumping off point for her creative writing and the latter as someone who is focused on his passion. Seiji wants to become a violin maker and he's willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve that target. "Listening to your heart" has been proposed many times in film and literature as the single guiding factor for life's decisions, but in never quite as subtle a fashion as here. The film never gets too preachy, but instead it simply weaves its story and its characters (realistic ones at that) through its theme.
The whole film is gorgeously drawn, painted and animated. The fantasy sequences with The Baron are, of course, wonderful, but it's the surroundings of Tokyo that really benefit from the individual hand coloured frames. Director Yoshifumi Kondo (who sadly passed away a few short years after completion of this film) once again doesn't rush things. We follow Shizuku through the outlying areas and get a great feel for the surroundings as the animation lingers on crowded city streets, passing views from a train and lovely vistas. Kondo was mentored by Hayao Miyazaki (who contributed the screenplay, storyboards and some production duties) and you can feel his guiding hand everywhere - particularly in the quiet moments.
In Shizuku's case, her guide has been with her the whole time. Just like those Country Roads will eventually take you home, following your passions will eventually get you where you want to be.