This is the kind of precious work that I’m hesitant to tackle, for fear of tainting its magic. Even thinking about the movie is enough for the nostalgia to kick in, and I can feel my heart squeeze. But this movie celebrates its 20th anniversary this year (July 15th), so it’s an occasion I can’t miss. Go down the road with me as I return to the place where I belong, a land that never fails to soothe my soul.
Song of the movie : Honna Youko – Country Road (John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” cover)
(Please listen to this song!)
Timeless. Unadulterated. Poetic. There are many terms that come to mind when I think of Mimi wo Sumaseba, known in America as Whisper of the Heart (though I prefer this translation: “If you listen closely”, closer to the Japanese meaning in my opinion).
I wish I could forget all about this movie for the sheer joy of rediscovering this feeling again. Really, there’s nothing like the first time you read/listen/watch something that resound so loudly within you. I was totally taken by surprise. It looks innocuous at first glance, but you soon find yourself wondering what are those emotions you’re suddenly having. And here is one of the several qualities of this movie: it speaks directly to your heart.
So, what do we have here? (Caution: spoilers galore)
Mimi wo sumaseba was at first a shoujo manga penned by Hiiragi Aoi in 1989. But let’s draw the line here, because the manga is really forgettable. This is one of the few times I’d say that the movie is actually better than the book.
Tsukishima Shizuku is a bright middle-schooler who spends many hours with books while still finding the time to laugh and gossip with her friends. It’s as normal as you can get. She notices one day that a certain Amazawa Seiji has already checked out all the books she took at the library, but doesn’t think much of it.
She has a work to do, you see, and it’s to translate John Denver’s song “Take me home, Country roads”. Her humorous take has her hometown described as Concrete roads and while she did it for fun, she doesn’t like the comments made by a boy who found the lyrics she forgot on a bench. His advice? Give up. Who this jerk thinks he is, huh? Hmpf!
We’re on Shizuku’s side, so this guy pretty much looks like your typical arrogant antagonist. Look at his face!
But the story doesn’t play that game, and cleverly leads Shizuku on another path. After reading fairytales, she’s in the mood for some fantasy and follows a cat she saw in a train. He takes her to a old antiques store, full of curiosities, which will become her own Wonderland, “the place where stories start”, and where she’ll meet a kind Grandpa.
The weakest part of the movie has a lot to do with a love triangle involving Shizuku’s friend, a male classmate her friend is in love with but who loves Shizuku, and poor Shizuku, who doesn’t know what she’s doing here. Fortunately, this sequence is dealt with delicacy, and mostly serves to make Shizuku wonder why people have to change, and how she’s arrived at a point in her life where reality starts to spoil her ideals.
She returns to the shop several times, as if looking for a way of escape, but it’s closed. Jerk Boy happens to be Shop Grandpa’s grandson, and lets her enter the place so that she can take a closer look at the statue of a cat, named Baron, that she admired on her first visit.
That day, she discovers more about the boy as she enters his workshop, decorated with unfinished violins. He’s making one, prompting Shizuku to ask him to play a piece, and he agrees at the condition that she sings. What follows is, without a doubt, the most memorable scenes of this movie, as Shizuku sings her version of Country Road, accompanied by the boy’s violin and soon by Grandpa and his musical friends. Enjoy ♪
Shizuku also finds out that this boy is the Amazawa Seiji who checked out all these books, and her idealized image of a sweet boy goes poof. What is revealed instead is his dream of becoming a violin craftsman. Seiji knows that he has still a lot to learn and intends to study in Cremona, Italy, among experts, though he has yet to convince his parents, with only his Grandpa on his side.
For the first time in her life, Shizuku becomes aware that she has no clear idea of her future. And, once again, here lies the brilliance of this movie: you think you’re watching a simple teen movie and you don’t realize that it’s smoothly transitioning to a more profound story. The first part is quite deceptive, in that sense.
The next day at school, Seiji goes straight to her class to let her know that his parents agreed to send him two months in Italy to study as an apprentice. The more they speak, the more Shizuku realizes how far behind she is compared to Seiji. At that moment, I think she’s both sad that he’s leaving because of her budding feelings for him but also because his departure forces her to face her own situation.
It’s with a heavy heart that Shizuku carries on, even though Seiji cutely confessed that he checked these books to make her notice him, and that he’ll sing her song to himself in Italy. Ack, it only makes things more difficult!
Shizuku goes to her friend’s house, and sums up her case: “Two people read the same books. Except one is going forward while the other stays behind.” Yeah, teens aren’t famous for their joie de vivre. Shizuku’s friend offers the classic reaction: writing letters everyday and support each other but Shizuku feels that ambition is a key factor in their relationship and can’t picture herself encouraging someone who worked so hard for his goal when she never tried anything.
Which is why she decides to challenge herself and write a story, thinking that it’ll be easy: “He’s going to find out if he has talent. Well, so will I!” It’s telling that she entitles it “Mimi wo sumaseba — If you listen closely”, not only for the meta but because she began to pay more attention to her surrounding. Nothing is what she thought it was at first: Seiji isn’t a jerk, the cat has as many names and stories as he has families, she’s experiencing new feelings herself…
Shizuku pays another visit to Shop Grandpa, as she wishes to make his Baron cat the hero of her story. He agrees but wants to be the first to read it. Noticing her hesitation, he shares some wisdom on what it means to be a craftsman, using a stone as a metaphor: rough and unpolished but hiding a gem inside. Seiji and Shizuku are the same, to him, and they should not expect perfection at the first try. Such wise words I still have to remember to this day.
Leaving the store, Shizuku is exhilarated and brimming with ideas as her inner world literally spreads under her feet. Paradoxically, this whimsical sequence in which she briefly moves in the fantasy universe she’s created feels a bit out of sync, but illustrates how immersed she is in her imagination.
Wanting to broaden her knowledge, she goes to the library where Seiji finds her. He quietly sits in front of her and reads, until she notices his presence, and he says that he’s leaving the next day, but that he’ll wait for her to finish her research. His attitude towards her and his respect is another endearing point of their romance. No need to be grandiloquent or mushy. Seiji holding Shizuku’s hand because he can’t walk her home, or Shizuku promising to do her best in his absence is enough to convey their feelings (for now, at least).
Soon, she enters a state of euphoria as her yearning to deliver her story takes precedence over her basic needs (hello, food?) or her grades. But her high spirits don’t last as the reality of her everyday life wears her out to the point where her parents, who have proved to be very tolerant since we first met them, feel the need to have a talk with her. This moment is as deftly handled as the others, as they take the time to hear her out without imposing their views.
Throughout the movie, the character of Shizuku has been portrayed as realistically as possible. She’s not infantilized, dumbed down, sassy or know-it-all, and when her parents confront her, you understand that they do so while respecting her individuality. She has made a choice, and they don’t dismiss it.
It’s clear they care about her grades, but Shizuku’s father asks a very significant question: “Is what you’re doing now more important than studying?” No judgment here. Her father working at the local library knows more than anybody that Shizuku is working hard, and when she explains that she’s testing herself, he agrees that “Not everybody has to be the same.” And when we think about it, isn’t that choice harder in the end? It’s also with tenderness that he warns his young girl standing at the door of adulthood that it’s not easy when you walk your own road.
You’d think that with her parent’s approval, things would get better for Shizuku but that’s forgetting the psychological burden weighing on her mind. Now free, she’s more lost than ever, as embodied by her nightmare in which she’s trapped in her fantasy world, looking for a gemstone only to find a dead chick. Shizuku is burning herself with her own fire, desperate as she is to create something that can stand the comparison with Seiji’s work.
The movie isn’t afraid to show the harsh reality that most artists have to face at some point and in that aspect, the climax for me is the moment she presents her story to Shop Grandpa. Here is an artist full of doubts, who wants to improve and grow but lacks confidence. Exploiting the stone metaphor (har, har), what if Shizuku is deluding herself and can’t find the beautiful crystal inside her?
She needs advices from her peers, which is why she is so anxious to share her story with a fellow artist. Sure, there was the promise he’d be the first to read it, but I also think that there is a relation of mentor-to-artist here. She’s on pins and needles the whole time he reads it, and the way the movie refuses to hurry to the result, chosing instead to show the passing of the hours is another testimony of its magic. It makes Grandpa’s verdict much more powerful.
Shizuku, like many others, tends to be harsher with herself than any critic would be, to the point where she distrusts the positive reviews of her relatives. Grandpa finds the right words and tells her that her work, though rough and unfinished, is as beautiful as Seiji’s violin, which is what she wanted to achieve. And because we spent our time living with the characters and the details of their everyday life, we cry along Shizuku.
Grandpa’s words made her realize that she pushed herself too hard. She idealized Seiji’s position while belittling her own. She’s full of ambition, but acknowledges that she’s too young and still lacks the experiences life can give to help her write more elaborated stories. Later that day, she tells her parents she’ll resume her normal student life, now wanting to learn more.
The last minutes that come next are pure romantic perfection. Before dawn, Shizuku happens to look at her window and sees Seiji who was wondering how he’d make his presence know. Remember how it was, before cellphones? He takes her on his bike to a secret place where they have a wonderful view of the city at dawn. I’ll put aside the symbolism of them watching the start of a new day to focus on how they climbed the slope. Seiji struggles to pedal but wants to stick to his dream picture of riding with his girlfriend behind. Shizuku won’t have none of it, and refuses to be a burden. She’s proactive and intends to be of help in their journey. It’s such a simple yet symbolic scene: you have to work together to enjoy your reward.
Then comes the final scene, which probably ruined many love lives forever with the way it put the bar so high. Without melodrama, Seiji and Shizuku are two souls promising to be their best. That’s got to be the sweetest declaration I’ve ever seen. What we thought would be boy meets girl developed to a subtle and genuine relationship. They both want to expand their horizons, each in their own way, while still caring for the other.
So there you have it. Mimi wo sumaseba is described as a coming-of-age story, but for me it’s much more than that. Unfortunately, Yoshifumi Kondō, the great director that crafted such a gem (and who was expected to be the successor of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata at the head of Studio Ghibli), died three years after that movie. In his first (and last) feature, he delivered a masterful performance, from the enchanting sequences of Shizuku’s imagination to the anecdotal moments of the daily life in a middle-class Japanese family.
In ten or twenty years, I know this movie will still be a favorite and one I’ll gladly return to. My nostalgic secret garden, that I only share with millions of other fans. Will you also listen closely to its magic?