by Miguel Galang | September 21, 2020
Do you remember what you were like back in high school? I’ll give you a moment’s breath to recover from whatever mortifying flashbacks you may have experienced. Apologies too for putting you through certain trauma so early on. But while we do tend to disassociate from our younger selves for fear of revisiting past embarrassments, I think once in a while it’s good to look back on the roads that led us to where we are right now; the touch-and-go choices we made, the silly dreams we wrestled with — they serve as battle scars, dusty photo albums of a time where life was as simple as being carefree and naïve in the summer of our adolescence. Whisper of the Heart (1995), a Studio Ghibli gem, perfectly encapsulates the fickleness of our youth and our desire to find unique roads that will lead to places of maturity and self-discovery.
“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” Olivia Newton-John croons as her cover of John Denver’s country classic preludes the film. Upon initial viewing, I was curious as to what this specific American song was doing in a Japanese animated feature. Luckily, we aren’t kept on our toes for too long as we meet our main girl, fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima (Yōko Honna). Shizuku has been translating the Denver hit for her friends, writing her own rendition of the tune cleverly titled “Concrete Roads,” which is less heartfelt tribute than it is a keen observation. She is aware of the “concrete roads everywhere” that mantle her hometown along with the “cut down trees” and “filled in valleys,” all brought about by a modernizing Tokyo. For someone as young as Shizuku to make these observations means that she too is feeling the rush of the changing times: especially since it’s her last summer before she prepares for high school entrance exams, and later on, her decisions for the future. Plagued with uncertainty about who she wants to be and what she wants to do with her life, in typical Ghiblian fashion, she unknowingly finds the answers by following a cat.
In her spontaneous cat-stalking, Shizuku meets a cast of new characters and their different niches in life: Shiro (Keiju Kobayashi), a reflective old man and his treasured antique shop; Seiji (Issey Takahashi), her classmate and a curious boy with a crafter’s hands; and a feline nobleman called the Baron (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi), who would eventually become a pivotal character in Shizuku’s journey. As she spends more time in their company, she begins to awaken the sleeping language of her heart; the intuitive dreams that have been whispering to her all along.
Shizuku has been surrounded by ambitious people for most of her young life. In the Tsukishima household alone, you have a mother finishing her graduate studies, an older sister declaring independence as she moves out of the house, and perhaps the most ambitious of them all, a father who rules the world of books (see: librarian). In Shizuku’s eyes, her father represents the culmination of fulfilled ambition: to be surrounded by the world’s greatest stories and hoping that someday, her story will be among those seated on the shelves. There’s even Seiji, who dreams of becoming a master violin-maker in Italy. But what about Shizuku’s ambitions? What role does she serve in this big small world? Inspired by those around her, and her love of books, Shizuku realizes she was born to be a storyteller. Her special craft was already in full display when she used poetry to translate John Denver into the more relatable “Concrete Roads.” It was just a matter of discovering this dream for herself, and yielding to that ambition. Like a figurative lightbulb, the realization illuminates the lost forests that have canopied her mind, and beneath all the undergrowth, a new road familiarizes: The road to maturity and self-discovery.
While summer was the fantasy she relished through the hundreds of books she’s read, the moment is fleeting compared to what the reality has in store for her. Shizuku was destined to write her own stories, to be the heroine of her story. Consumed with this new-found passion and motivation, she conjures up a fantasy starring herself and the Baron, who is in search of his lost love. As for Shizuku’s own lost love, the search looks like staying up until the wee hours of the morning, trying to find the missing words to her chapters; It looks like sacrificing her academic performance and arguing with her parents about going to high school, because the road was once lost, but now it is found and it is good!
There is something euphoric to finally knowing yourself a little better, especially when you’re young and growing up can feel like a race: If you don’t know how to run, you’re never going to get anywhere. We tend to rush things because we think that’s the default route towards greatness. For Shizuku, the race meant finishing her story in time for Seiji’s return from Italy and proving to herself that she is good, that she is worthy of her newfound talent. But it’s a devastating piece of truth to be good at the one thing you know is true to you, and still be not good enough for it. “Wanting isn’t enough. I have to learn more,” she realizes after turning in the pages of her first story to the old man in the antique shop. She learns that to reach the great skies of her imagination, she has to be all the more prepared for its altitudes. It’s a lesson many of us could have learned, when we were young: “You’ve shown me the rough stone you’ve just cut out of the rock,” The old man reassures her, a nugget of hope. “There’s no need to rush now. Take your time and polish it.”
In my imaginary epilogue, Shizuku is all grown up and a master storyteller. She wasn’t an overnight success — she went through the hell that is high school first, then later, she got that college degree. Post-graduate studies may be a bit of a stretch, but hey, her mom did it. Nonetheless, whatever canon she ends up in, she’ll always have the concrete roads of her home that paved the way for her storytelling journey; she’ll always have the patience gained from trusting the process, and the importance of polishing.
As I journeyed with Shizuku throughout the film, I can’t help but be thrown back into my own journey of maturity and self-discovery in high school. Trying to figure out who I wanted to be among the crowded hallways filled with ambitious people without losing myself in the process. In retrospect, I wish I could’ve taken certain roads instead, made better decisions, because maybe then I could’ve been spared the drama and heartbreak — but that’s cheating the cycle of growing up. I’ve learned that you can’t really blame yourself for being young and foolish no matter how much we despise ourselves in the past. When you’re young, nobody expects you to know everything, even though deep down our pride says otherwise, and that’s just us being passionate idealists. We take such huge leaps of faith and fall the hardest because we know what we’re made of and know what we’re capable of, even if our best laid plans didn’t exactly translate into full blown pictures. Nevertheless, the roads we took will always be there, like an old memory stashed away in our drawers, to remind us of how far we’ve gone and how great we’ve grown since we, like Shizuku, listened to the whispers of our hearts.