One does not expect a Studio Ghibli film to open with a John Denver song. But that’s exactly what we get here, as “Take Me Home, Country Road” not only opens up the Whisper of the Heart, but it rears its head many times throughout the film. A bit jarring at first, but it does set the tone of the story, both thematically and to let us know right out of the gate that this story is going to be planted pretty firmly in reality. Which is a bit of a shame, as one does go into a Ghibli project with a certain expectation of the fantastic. This realistic tone would normally be fine (the excellent Grave of the Fireflies comes to mind) but there are enough moments in in Whisper that trick you into thinking that the story is going to go off in one direction, but then ends up staying its course. What’s most striking about looking back at Whisper of the Heart all of these years later, is not the actual film, but the spin off it inspired, 2002’s The Cat Returns, which we will get into in a bit.
Whisper of the Heart is a simple tale of youth trying to find love. Junior high school girl Shizuku Tsukishima becomes intrigued when she discovers that a certain boy, Seiji Amasawa, has previously checked out all of the library books she has been reading over the summer. Could he be her soul mate? True to the tropes of the genre, she discovers that the boy that sounds so good for her on paper, actually really annoys her when she discovers who he is. It is not until she follows a cat across town to an old antique shop that ends up being run by Seiji’s grandfather, that she begins to see him for who he is and begins to warm up to him. It’s simple and generally effective, but it’s not an original tale by any means. And that’s where Ghibli would usually come in and add some fantastic elements to the story to elevate it beyond the traditional. Yes, we do get a little glimpse of magic towards the end of the film, when a story Shizuku is writing plays out on screen, but it’s not enough to elevate Whisper to something great. As stated before, there were moments here where you think the film is going to take a turn—when Shizuku follows the cat across town or when she thinks she sees a cat statue wink at her—that the audience gets geared up for a moment of something special. But that never really happens here, opting instead for a rather straightforward story of teenage love. What a shame.
The most interesting aspect of Whisper of the Heart, is actually its spinoff, The Cat Returns. This films takes the statue of the cat Baron (which Shizuku makes the focus of her short story) and runs with it, creating an entire world for this figurine come to life to inhabit. It’s a complete one-eighty from Whisper and I wonder if it wasn’t a bit of an over correction. It’s as if the studio realized that people really liked the small bits of the Baron found in Whisper and decided to go all in on it. Parts of it work, others don’t, but on the whole it’s a much more memorable experience than Whisper is. The existence of this spin off certainly makes Whisper of the Heart more interesting to think about, but it doesn’t retroactively make it a better film. Whisper is a cute story, with some touching moments and gorgeous animation, but the fairly pedestrian tale keeps it from being great.