Like many young writers, my process was – and still is – defined much more by frustrations and insecurities than by achievements and improvements. I was trying my best, but still had a lot to learn. I felt the passion of storytelling, but was plagued with self-doubt. Often, it was also an isolating experience. It seems natural, then, that some of the best encouragement I received wasn’t in the form of advice and wisdom. It was the realisation, through talking to other writers, that this was a normal part of growing as a young artist – that creating something which I was disappointed with was a step forwards, rather than proof that I should give up.
It’s a message I often need to hear repeated, and it’s not until I hear it again that I realise I’d forgotten it.
This was why Studio Ghibli’s 1995 film, Whisper of the Heart by Yoshifumi Kondo, resonated so powerfully with me. It spoke to me in the same way that, I’m sure, it did for every other young artist in the gap between realising our passion and creating something we’re proud of. Unlike other portrayals I’ve seen, Kondo doesn’t depict a tortured artist or creative genius; instead, the film is honest about what it’s like coming of age as a young writer.
Set in 1990s Japan, Whisper of the Heart centres on fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukushima: a bookish girl dividing her time between studying, reading fantasy stories, and adapting lyrics for her junior high school graduation. Her life changes, however, when she becomes friends – and slowly falls in love – with fellow student Seiji Amasawa. Seiji tells Shizuku that his ambition is to become a professional violin maker, and that even though he isn’t sure whether he’s good enough, he’s still determined to pursue his dream. For him, the first step is to be trained in Cremona, Italy.
Shizuku is in awe of Seiji at first, and this soon translates into a feeling of inferiority. She says to Seiji, “That’s great that you know what you want to do with your life. I don’t have a clue what to do with mine.”
I’ve experienced this sense of confusion (still do!), and I’ve had enough conversations along these lines to know that many of my friends have also felt the same way. And like Shizuku in her response to how determined Seiji is, this is only exacerbated when we see others our age who do have a set goal, who are already on track to achieving great things – who seem far more accomplished than we are. It’s difficult to prevent that instinctive reaction of comparing ourselves to them, and feeling inferior because of it.
Shizuku feels this all too strongly, and it even complicates her feelings towards Seiji: discussing this with her best friend, she states that she feels like she’s not good enough for him. But just as she says this, she is suddenly reminded of Seiji saying the same thing: “I’m not close to being good enough.” That self-doubt hasn’t stopped Seiji, though – he’s challenged himself regardless. Inspired, Shizuku decides to turn her fantasising into an attempt at becoming a writer.
There’s a subtle lesson that could be taken away from Shizuku’s choice here. Because the truth is, it’s a good thing to have a passion and start pursuing it even when you’re young; it’s good to look beyond tomorrow and the day-to-day. That doesn’t mean, however, that when we see others who are already on this path, that we should think ourselves as lesser because of it. It’s far more valuable to learn from others, and let them inspire us. What Shizuku realises as a result of seeing Seiji’s determination is that challenges and self-doubt shouldn’t stop her from pursuing her own aspiration. And though she doesn’t realise it at first, her encouragement of Seiji and her writing are sources of inspiration to him, too – ultimately drawing them closer together.
Shizuku begins writing soon afterwards, and this is the point where Whisper of the Heart really shines – and all the more for the simplicity of its scenes. There are small moments which triggered a smile from me, as they brought me back to being a fourteen-year-old in a similar, impassioned state: Shizuku is so excited about writing she stays up past midnight; her friend comments that she keeps ‘spacing out’ when she’s thinking about her story; she goes to the non-fiction rather than fantasy section for the first time as she conducts research for her novel, prompting amused confusion from others.
Yet Shizuku’s experience also has painful moments that reflect the reality of this journey. In a particularly poignant sequence, she hands her novel over to Nishi, Seiji’s grandfather, to read – her anxiety in that scene is reflective of the way I feel, without fail, every time I hand a piece of writing over to someone for the first time. Even more powerful was her emotional response when talking to him afterwards. Nishi assures her that her story was ‘raw and heartfelt’, despite being rough, to which Shizuku abruptly tears up and says:
“I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be crying. I wanted so badly to do a good job, but there’s so much that I don’t know about writing! […] I can never catch up. I can never be good enough…”
Interwoven with these scenes are fantastical sequences set in Shizuku’s imagination, as her character speaks to her directly, and she’s absorbed by her world. The film fully utilises the inventive power of animation as a medium, to capture the exhilaration of storytelling.
I wonder what watching Whisper of the Heart would have been like if I didn’t have an experience like Shizuku’s to draw upon. How would I have responded, if it hadn’t been with jolts of recognition? Maybe I would have left the story with a simple – though valuable – moral: that we should pursue our dreams.
But I didn’t watch the film that way; I watched it through the lens of someone who’d walked every step of passion and frustration that Shizuku had, as a writer, and that had a stronger impact on me than any moral. Being reminded that all writers go through this strengthened my resolution not to give up in the face of self-doubt. That voice of empathy was what I needed to hear, and will need again and again.
Perhaps that speaks to the role of storytelling as a whole. Because sometimes the most powerful stories aren’t the ones which try to impart a message. Sometimes they’re the ones, like Whisper of the Heart, which convey their encouragement more subtly; the ones which simply say, ‘I understand’; the ones which speak softly from the heart.