By Lara Tan (22A01B)
Every so often, when life gets overwhelming and I need a break, I turn to the best remedy available: Studio Ghibli films.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with Studio Ghibli, they’re the masterminds behind lighthearted classics like Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro. And for self-professed movie connoisseurs who prefer Studio Ghibli’s more cerebral works, films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, and Grave of the Fireflies are sure to hit that intellectual sweet spot.
Amongst several other astounding qualities, Studio Ghibli films are known for their fantastical elements and settings which often elucidate certain truths about contemporary society. Princess Mononoke (a long-time favourite of mine) is set in feudal Japan, but incorporates myth and legend in the form of monsters and forest spirits to emphasise themes concerning environmental pollution and hierarchical authority.
To Studio Ghibli’s credit, this magic formula of magical realism blended with a pinch of moral messaging has been the recipe behind many of their most impactful and well-received works. However, there is a small section of their oeuvre that is largely unknown to most movie-goers: their coming-of-age films.
Today, I want to introduce you to three of the coming-of-age movies, from Studio Ghibli.
Whisper of the Heart (1995) – 111 minutes
Whisper of the Heart follows a 14 year old student and budding writer, Shizuku Tsukishima, studying for junior high school entrance exams and navigating the complex relationships in her life. An innocuous coincidence links her with Seiji Amasawa, a boy in her year who has a similarly unorthodox passion for violin-making. After a couple of comic misunderstandings and false first impressions, they gain a better understanding of one another.
While its premise might sound hackneyed, I’d argue Whisper of the Heart gives a compelling psychological account of self-discovery. Our protagonist is endearingly imperfect: she is moody, insecure, and clumsy. At the same time, her independence and strong will makes it impossible to dislike her.
She is a balanced character who has room to grow and learns to accept herself and nurture her passions in a realistic manner. Perhaps this is precisely what makes her so relatable.
Shizuku possesses undeniably high amounts of main character energy. And while it can seem pretentious, I believe it isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. I think everyone wants to feel like a main character in their own story sometimes, and to a certain extent it can make life seem more exciting. I personally felt captivated by her character and her story as she grows and finds her footing as an artist and a human being.
Where storytelling is concerned, Whisper of the Heart is lovely in its simplicity. One of the few Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself but by Yoshifumi Kondo, it has a more realistic aesthetic, with some fantastical interludes in between (accompanied by a superb score).
Its setting is a nondescript, fairly urban town in Japan, but as we see it through Shizuku’s eyes, it has its charms and eccentricities as well. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the last scene is breathtaking.
This movie will always occupy a special place in my heart, mostly because of how much I saw, as a younger child, and still see myself in the two main characters. We share the same interests in music and writing, and a tendency to romanticise life a bit too much as a coping mechanism. But even to someone who may not have such nostalgia, it’s a heartwarming account of young people finding themselves and learning how to balance their passions with hard work and grit.
Only Yesterday (1991) – 118 minutes
Unlike Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday features a very different protagonist. Taeko Okajima, an unmarried 27 year old salarywoman with a rather unremarkable life, decides to take a sojourn in the rural countryside to escape city life. Her trip is interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, including experiencing her first period, puppy love and almost pursuing a career as a child actor.
One particular sequence I really enjoyed in this movie was, amusingly enough, Taeko recounting her difficulties with Maths as a child. It hits a little too close to home: her frustration with multiplying fractions, her older sister chastising her for her dimness, and her mother emphatically claiming that Taeko is not “normal”.
It’s simple snapshots from her past that really explain the woman Taeko has become today: a little jaded, but with an air of whimsical nonchalance and a sense of humour.
Although Only Yesterday is not as plot driven as other Ghibli films which might render it slow-moving and meandering, I believe it is a hidden masterpiece. It shines a glaring spotlight on a demographic of society arguably as overlooked today as it was even 30 years ago: unmarried women on the cusp of motherhood and true “womanhood”.
Here, I was struck by the mastery of the storytelling through the animation. What this film lacks in soundtrack or flashy, extravagantly animated sequences (compared to other Ghibli masterpieces) is more than made up for by the quality of animation.
Taeko’s flashbacks to her childhood have a hazy, dreamlike quality to them, and she appears innocent and starry-eyed. Compare that with her present life: small details, from her unbothered tomboyish outfits to her eyebags and wrinkles, convince the audience she’s not a fresh-faced ingénue.
Beyond that, the setting of the countryside is portrayed in both a gritty and an idealised manner. This makes it the perfect setting for the movie’s many discussions of inherent tensions in modern society, such as those between working professionally and “settling down” and over-romanticising the country as an escape from the city. The female lens complicates these tensions further, making this film a refreshing mix of narrative storytelling and social commentary.
Only Yesterday is a majestic film–the characters are strikingly real, and it is amazing how much one woman’s story says about family, community and society at large. It’s a bittersweet testament to the impermanence of youth, and having the courage to live life on your own terms.
Ocean Waves (1993) – 72 minutes
Yet another film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, many visuals in this film look like they’re straight out of a study lofi playlist. That’s because this film has a certain nostalgic quality, despite its young cast of characters. In fact, this might be the film that hits closest to home, simply because it centres around the lives of high schoolers.
Set in 90s Japan, Ocean Waves recounts a year in the life of a boy named Taku Morisaki as he becomes acquainted with Rikako Muto, a seemingly arrogant and aloof exchange student from Tokyo. This relationship is complicated by a host of other characters, from Taku’s best friend to other people in their school, who take an immediate dislike to the newcomer.
Although it does not contain any obvious moralistic message, that’s exactly where the beauty of this film lies. Ocean Waves is perfectly ambiguous in what it wants to say about teenage life and its woes (if it wants to say anything at all). It explores the messy, awkward side of navigating relationships, and the less-than-rosy truth about catching feelings for people.
Although I will readily admit this is not one of Studio Ghibli’s strongest films due to its rather meandering storyline and lack of climactic plot points, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the dynamic of the two main characters. For once (arguably), we are not presented with the typical “boy meets girl and they immediately or grow to like each other” trope. Instead, they experience formidable animosity and unease throughout almost the entire film.
And yet, this film does not follow a simple “enemies to lovers” trajectory. The relationship between the two is profoundly ambiguous, and dare I say, even a little manipulative. For example, our protagonist Taku lends Rikako a considerable sum of money on a school trip on the pretence that she had lost all her cash, only to find out she later uses his money to buy plane tickets to Tokyo to visit her estranged father.
Interestingly enough, I think this is one of the rare instances where we do not sympathise with “misunderstood” characters like Rikako. Or at least, I didn’t. For the record, she is rather snooty, spoiled and displays a comically stereotypical city girl attitude. Granted, she has her own personal problems and strife, but at the end of the day, I think she is meant to be perceived as a fundamentally unlikeable character. Another excellent example of beautifully complex character building by Studio Ghibli, if you ask me.
Don’t let the title fool you: just in case you think this movie is as mind-numbing as actual ocean waves on a Spotify Sleep playlist, there are plenty of high tension moments in this film. Taku’s relationship with Rikako is fraught with finger-pointing and resentment, and he experiences several run-ins with his best friend, Yutaka. But perhaps this is a truly accurate portrayal of growing pains: making and losing good friends, flirting with romance and navigating feelings of jealousy and hurt.
While the coming-of-age genre might seem oversaturated with your typical corny teenage romances, in my view, Studio Ghibli makes complex, delightful stories of this variety.
At the very least, while the movies above might not have the intellectual gravitas of great epics like Princess Mononoke, the lush, flashy storytelling of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the gut-wrenching emotional rawness of Grave of the Fireflies, they are an enjoyable way to spend an empty afternoon.
At best, they showcase Ghibli’s uncanny ability to make even the most mundane events, personalities or settings meaningful and captivating. Arguably, that’s at the core of it all — Studio Ghibli’s timeless appeal, and what makes its films so darn good.
Author’s note: I hope this triptych of films keeps you entertained. All 3 films are available on Netflix, but please don’t watch the dubs.