4. Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart
It seems unfair to write about Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart (耳を澄ませば）(1995) on the same day that I just wrote about Kiki, her much more iconic sister in the Ghibli universe. Shizuku is less flashy, less dramatic, less exciting, and the stakes in her story are lightyears away from death and destruction. But this is all appropriate to her characterization though: she is a nobody that rises to the challenge.
This is such a quiet film that it is usually overlooked or reduced to being just a high school love story. It has none of the rich fantasy worlds that we have come to expect from other Ghibli franchises. It is far more subtle dissection of the frustration that you feel when directionless and unpolished, even when you are passionate and inspired.
Shizuku is directionless and “busy” in the sense of “busy work.” She spends most of her summer vacation reading fairy tales until dusk, ignoring her studies and household chores. She gets caught up in gossip and club activities and running errands for her parents. She might have read almost every book in the library but her main challenge up until this point is just translating John Denver’s “Country Road” for an assignment. Then she meets Seiji, a classmate aspiring to be a violin maker.
I would not say that Shizuku writes so that she is “good enough” for Seiji. It is more that she is shocked that someone her age could be so decisive and focused about their goals. For most of the film she feels a sense of rivalry with him and the news of his long apprenticeship in Italy surely makes her wonder what in the world she is doing with her own life.
What results is an overwhelming need to challenge herself to something too, a desire to create, and go beyond the life she knows — that dense Tokyo middle class normal life that suddenly feels too slow, too limited, and too small.
And we see the highs of her inspiration…and the crumpling sense of inadequacy and fear that she’ll never move forward.
Anyone who has tried to create anything (a story, a painting, a song) can empathize with Shizuku’s desire, fear, and frustration. But what always impressed me about the film was how it focused on how actually damn hard it is to follow through and finish your work. Inspiration and talent are minor compared to the heavy lifting it takes to actually see a creative project to completion. Shizuku’s grades suffer, her family worries, and she loses sleep but she persists and persists.
This review explains one recurrent visual metaphor beautifully:
[Director] Kondô visualizes her almost hopeless battle through his lovingly detailed depiction of suburban Tokyo, as Shizuku is constantly ascending and descending its hilly environment, stressing how easy it is to move downward and the amount of effort it takes to move up.
If Kiki reminds me to find my inspiration, reframing the brutal daily grind as a question of meaningful creativity and motivation, then Shizuku tells me to rise to the challenge…and not be afraid of hard work.