Fun fact: my all time favourite Ghibli movie is Whisper of the Heart. It continues to be the most vulnerable and relatable of the bunch for me, and to this day I rewatch it maybe once a year because of how emotional it makes me. With the Ghibli repertoire finally available on Netflix in Canada, I wanted to take some time on this blog to explore how this movie whispers into my heart as I’m writing my thesis for my MA in Film Studies.
Before we begin, a quick rundown. Whisper of the Heart is a 1995 Ghibli movie directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, and explores the life of high schooler Shizuku Tsukishima as she decides to become a writer while navigating relationship woes, drama with friends, and tensions in her family. After meeting and falling for Seiji Amasawa, an aspiring violin-maker, Shizuku sets out to write a novel while he’s away on an apprenticeship to prove herself. Along the way, she learns how to balance her inspiration with her responsibilities, and how to harness her creativity. There aren’t many Ghibli movies that quite hit the same grounded reality as Whisper of the Heart. It’s a bittersweet, complex exploration of how we relate to our art, and what to do when others might put pressure on that.
Pushing Yourself for the Right Reasons
Shizuku’s motivations to push herself are rooted in a zeal for writing, and she pushes herself so much that she starts to break down. Over the past few years, but especially during COVID-19, I’ve heard a lot about slowing down, giving yourself breaks, “treat yo’self,” and other mantras that encourage less stress and more relaxation. I found myself getting caught up in the belief that not working was okay, and that if something didn’t immediately click or made me frustrated, it was fine if I postponed dealing with it. Turns out, this wasn’t good for me. Taking breaks only works when you’re actually working, after all. I’ve come to learn that it’s okay to push yourself if you’re doing so for the right reasons.
My thesis required a complete upheaval in how I approached work. Learning how to navigate this sudden shift in how I produce knowledge and keeping myself from burning out (also seen in Kiki’s Delivery Service), is a lesson I’ve learned pretty ungracefully by revving full throttle and running into walls multiple times throughout this whole process. I’ve needed to learn how to pace myself, take myself seriously, and make good on my goals. Shizuku’s goal to write a novel over the summer also places her in a sudden shift as she learns to navigate writing professionally, not just because she feels like it. When your work is self-imposed (as is so often the case in writing), learning how to push yourself and when to ease up becomes crucial to getting where you need to be.
Distinguishing between passion and discipline was the make or break point for my thesis. In writing, I’ve always relied on passion to fuel my productivity, whether that be making group presentations or working on an essay in the wee hours of the morning just because I didn’t feel like it all those other days. In a thesis, you’re not dealing with a 5 or 10 page paper anymore. You’re dealing with around 80-100 pages. And not only is it longer, but the way the information works is different. In an undergrad, you learn bits of information in a variety of classes, and you’re graded based on how well you can understand or memorize concepts. At the graduate level, you’re drawing on scholarly work to form your own information. Not to the level of a PhD, but it’s still quite the shift from an undergrad. You’re responsible for producing knowledge, not regurgitating it. 99% of your work is self-regulated, instead of being structured in a class setting. Your ideas must be coherent but discursive, simple but with enough nuance –but not too broad that you risk losing sight of your idea.
It’s a huge change and I wasn’t prepared. I needed to learn how to sit myself down and work through the uninspired moments to come out with something at the end of each day. I had to learn to treat my thesis not as a means to an end, but as a job in its own right, with responsibilities and deadlines. I had to stop thinking that I wasn’t really doing anything, especially when my supervisor and friends were assuring me of my ideas and value. Sometimes continuing in school can feel like you’re not getting anywhere, especially in something as isolating as a thesis. But in its own way, an MA teaches you discipline and workplace skills. You can’t just flunk your classes like Shizuku was tempted to when she dove into writing. You need to find a balance, something that discipline can really help with!
Polishing Your Gems
Talent also requires work. In order to excel you need to find what you can do best and work on making it even better. Shizuku’s conversations with Seiji’s grandfather form the core of the film’s view on the the creative process, comparing it to a geode. In his eyes, all artists have hidden gems that we discover when we start to dig deep in ourselves. But the catch is that the most visible ones are not always the most valuable. Years spent polishing gems that we can immediately see might not even be worth it. Sometimes the most precious gems are buried so far down that we can’t see them at first. It requires practice and discipline in order to get to the heart of yourself –to find that “whisper of the heart.”
Like Shizuku, I’ve always wanted to write. At first I was captivated by writing fiction, but now that’s changed to analysis and critical writing. As I’ve continued to polish my gems, I’ve learned about my work ethic, my inspiration, my style –all the components that make my writing mine. Even with my thesis, my plans have evolved since I submitted my proposal, and that’s because I’m putting in the work and connecting concepts I didn’t have before. It’s constant growth. Because of the pressures I’ve encountered in developing as a writer, I feel like Shizuku’s personal and professional struggles closely mirror my own (even though I didn’t threaten to leave high school).
Film Studies and Worth
Doing Film Studies, it’s very easy to spiral and wonder how on earth I’m supposed to apply myself or how I can contribute to the world doing what I love. After all, who immediately thinks of a Film Studies degree as helpful?? (truthfully, the Arts don’t get enough credit, funding or respect but that’s a conversation for another time). How can I justify spending my time doing this? It just didn’t feel real. I got depressed and listless, I felt completely worthless and unintelligent, I deluded myself into thinking my peers hated me or thought I was dumb and unworthy to try writing a thesis. Add that to the already weird feelings that come with explaining that yes, you study anime, and it becomes harrowing to try and figure out why you’re like this.
A film degree is hard work, and involves a lot of abstract thinking that you have to train to use. You don’t just wake up understanding the intricacies of theory and the different ways it can be applied, or the sociopolitical nuances of art. You have to work at it, and then you have to work even harder to articulate what you learn to other people. True, it rarely reaches those outside of university circles, but I firmly believe in bringing academic thoughts on media to everyday topics. That doesn’t mean the worthless feelings go away, though. “What are you going to do with that?” is still my number one question, alongside “so you make movies?” (which…no, I don’t). Becoming a writer is a constant battle with yourself to not fall into the trap of worth.
Romance and Support
The way Whisper of the Heart handles its romance has always stood out for me as a way of portraying two people mutually supporting each other to achieve their goals. Relationships (romantic or otherwise) are so important when writing a thesis. It’s an incredibly isolating thing to do. Most days it’s you and your thoughts, and it’s hard to discuss these thoughts with the average person, which feeds into that cycle of worthlessness from earlier. However, people need people. My family, friends, and significant other all remind me every day that I’m human. I’m not a robot that can just blab on about film theory all day. I can express myself, I’m capable, and I have people to lean on that help me get out of my head.
Seiji and Shizuku’s relationship in Whisper of the Heart is incredible. Even before I had a relationship, Whisper of the Heart impacted how I thought about sharing your passions and goals with kindred spirits. Shizuku and Seiji understand that love, as well as art, requires commitment. And this detail has only grown in me over the years as I’ve navigated my own relationship with my significant other through distance with COVID, challenging work environments and motivations, and the steps we need to take to support each other while apart. In this sense, Whisper of the Heart’s title also hints at how the people in your life can encourage you, lift you up, and talk sense into you when you need it. People are whispering encouragement into your heart.
How Whisper of the Heart Explores Writing
Whisper of the Heart explores the whimsy Ghibli is known for within a very grounded narrative. You can compare it to Kiki’s Delivery Service, or My Neighbour Totoro for how it nestles serious topics into fantastical ones, but Whisper of the Heart is different. It’s not just about inspiration or imagination, it’s about making stories. Here, the fantasy isn’t in the world of the story; it’s in Shizuku’s writing. We get all the whimsy that a Ghibli film calls for, but it only comes to us through the thoughts of a writer. The drama that unfolds in the film is so grounded and nuanced that watching it feels bittersweet to me. Through writing, Shizuku faces a crisis in trying to juggle what she already is with who she wants to be.
The film similarly switches between Shizuku’s creative highs and her overwhelmed lows. So much about the writing process is conveyed in Whisper of the Heart, and surprisingly, most of it lies in the everyday silences and worries. Writing is something that follows you around, the ideas and expressions don’t just happen at a desk. It’s a way of viewing the world, something that I feel Whisper of the Heart very accurately captures. Confronting the realities that come up as you pursue writing is tough to reckon with. As I’ve been learning through this MA thesis, it takes a lot of work and reasonable pushing to get the job done. It might be isolating, but the experience of writing is so exhilarating that I wouldn’t ever give it up.
Before wrapping up, I wanted to say thank you so much to everyone who reads, shares, and likes these blog posts! This entry marks the 50th one I’ve written here, which is insane! A whole lot more is in the works, and inspiration keeps hitting me as the anime scene keeps evolving along with my other interests. I’ve loved being able to post analyses here and polish my gems, so to speak. The anime blogging community keeps me full of ideas and eager to keep creating. I’m excited to see what will happen next!