Whisper of the Heart is unusual for a Studio Ghibli film in not featuring any magic, or at least nothing supernatural. That said, it is at least as much about magic as many of their films full of witches and spirits and demons. Rather than the usual fantastic adventure stories which are merely facilitated by magic, this is a celebration of story-telling, music, creativity and love - all the sorts of things that make real life magical.
Our heroine is Shizuku, a girl of around fourteen who dreams of being a writer, and like most aspiring writers she reads heavily. Borrowing book after book from the library, she keeps noticing one name re-appearing as a previous borrower in them - a boy at her school, who shows some interest before being unreasonably mean to her, in the way that boys usually are when they're attracted to a girl, at least in Hayao Miyazaki films.
Their paths cross again after she befriends the owner of a wonderful antiques shop, where her imagination is sparked by an old statuette of a cat with glowing eyes. The owner turns out to be the boy's grandfather, part of a welcoming clan, and they bond over music sessions and the telling of stories. The boy dreams of being a master violin maker, his ambition mirroring and inspiring her own.
Whisper is sometimes described as a prequel to the equally lovely The Cat Returns, but this is a very different sort of a film with little in common by way of plot, characters or atmosphere. The Cat Returns might be better described as a sequel to the story Shizuku writes here about 'Baron, the Cat Baron' - perhaps it's an example of her more mature work. In contrast to the later film, a swashbuckling romp mainly set in the magical Cat Kingdom, Whisper is low-key, mundane and understated. I don't mean to make it sound boring - it absolutely isn't - but it lacks the hyperactivity of so many films aimed at kids, though with its simple charm and moral lessons I assume they really are intended to be its main audience.
Miyazaki, who adapted the screenplay from a graphic novel but did not direct this, is not someone who feels the need to steer clear of sentimentality. Some people might find it cloying at one or two points, but I have to say I feared much, much worse from a film with a name like 'Whisper of the Heart' - which is perhaps unfair, since the original title translates as 'if you listen closely', which is much less cheesy. On the whole it manages to be sweet without being sickly, and I love the animation and the quiet way the characters develop. This is a beautiful, thoughtful film.