The Sound that Connects the World and Time
By Fujimoto Yukari
Books have time folded within them. The cover of a book is a gateway to another time and space painted in the past. When that cover is opened, one can enter another world different from reality. To the world of fairy tales, of fantasy, a world that makes the heart soar!
But soon enough, there comes a moment when it’s not just about getting lost in the world of the book. The path inside the book begins to reverse, leading back to the “real world.” At that moment, the book becomes a gateway not just to another different world, but a gateway to change the “reality” we know, bit by bit.
And that inversion typically happens during “adolescence” (i.e., during junior high school). That’s why adolescence can be tough, full of doubts and confusion. But during this period, when you “encounter” something, you can hear the sound of the world changing—
This is the message I took from Aoi Hiiragi’s original work “Whisper of the Heart,” and the Studio Ghibli animated film based on it.
This New Year, I had a junior high school reunion for the first time since graduation, several decades ago. It was the toughest period of my life. But seeing familiar faces after such a long time, my classmates said to me, “You always read books while walking and bumped into things, right?” “You even read books during class, didn’t you (laughs)?”
From my late elementary school to junior high school years, that was my reality. Just like Shun, I visited the library every day, wrote my name on book cards, and devoted every spare moment to immerse myself in the world of books. During summer vacations, I would visit relatives’ houses and read the books they had there.
It Always Begins in Summer
The project “Whisper of the Heart” reportedly began at Hayao Miyazaki’s summer villa (technically, it was his wife’s father’s studio). Someone had left a recent issue of “Ribbon” magazine there, which had an installment of “Whisper of the Heart” serialized. After reading it, Miyazaki and others began to imagine the story that came before and after it. The next year, the same work caught their eye and the same discussions began… I think this is how “encounters” happen. And for adolescents, such life-changing encounters often happen in the “summer” (this is based on my experience. And it often happens at a relative’s house. Exposure to different cultures makes a difference).
Aoi Hiiragi’s series “Whisper of the Heart” began in the August 1989 issue of “Ribbon” (again, summer!).
Following her major hit serial “Starry Eyes’ Silhouette,” this was her second serialized story. At first, a title came to her, and when she thought about using this familiar phrase as a title, she got excited about the world it expanded into (as per the afterword of the paperback edition). She wanted the story to be about a girl who loves books, not centered on romance as she had done before, but something that shows the zest of life. “There are plenty of things more interesting than romance,” she thought excitedly. But her editor told her, “Wait. After all, ‘Ribbon’ is primarily a romance magazine. We want you to create something romantic like the hit ‘Starry Eyes’ Silhouette.'” Reluctantly, she considered a few romance-centric stories, but felt she had exhausted that theme. Not enthusiastic about that path, her editor, seeing her determination, said, “If you want to pursue it that much, go ahead with that project.” Elated, she decided to change the art style from “Starry Eyes’ Silhouette” intentionally, wanting something timeless, reminiscent of children’s book illustrations. However, the audience’s reaction was lukewarm, and the series was canceled after just four installments.
After the decision to cancel the serialization was made, Ms.Hiiragi mentioned, “It was quite challenging to wrap up the foreshadowed storylines,” in a conversation with Director Kondo that was included in the bunko edition of “Whisper of the Heart”. However, due to Miyazaki-san reading one of the episodes from those brief four episodes, the decision was made to animate it by Studio Ghibli.
There’s a wonderful episode related to this.
In the same conversation with Director Kondo, mentioned in the original Bunko edition, it was revealed that the figure of Baron the cat is something Ms. Hiiragi actually owns (!). The story of how she came to own this “Baron” is quite memorable.
She saw it in a store, thought it was lovely, but didn’t buy it because it was a bit pricey. But after a few weeks, when she went back wanting to purchase it, it was already sold. As it turned out, the person who bought the figure was her now-husband. He gifted her the Baron figure as a birthday present. How fateful!
This parallels how “Whisper of the Heart”, which was unpopular and halted in its serialization, caught the eye of Miyazaki-san and appeared in front of Ms. Hiiragi as a completed Studio Ghibli anime. It’s almost symbolic.
Regarding the original work, Ms. Hiiragi commented in the conversation, “I had to end the story before fully conveying what I wanted, leaving it unresolved in my heart. When I read Miyazaki-san’s storyboard, almost everything I wanted to express in the original, which remained unresolved, was included. I felt the story could finally come to a proper conclusion. I was overjoyed.”
Thus, Studio Ghibli’s “Whisper of the Heart” was completed. The original story, when read in its entirety later, was completely different from what Miyazaki-san had anticipated. Even so, the anime adaptation remains largely faithful to the original. There are, nevertheless, significant differences. For instance, in the original, the main character, Shizuku, borrows a book titled “Fairy Tale”. Its first reader, Koji Amasawa (brother of Seiji), doesn’t appear in the anime. In the original, Seiji is shown drawing, but in the anime, he is clearly aspiring to craft violins. This sharpens the theme of “listening closely.” (Japanese name of the film is “If You Listen Carefully”) At the same time, the theme of “choices for the future” is prominently featured.
In the anime, not only is the grandfather depicted as an artisan who repairs antiques, but he’s also shown as a musician. When Shizuku sings “Country Roads” accompanied by Seiji’s violin, the grandfather returns with his friends. They all bring out their instruments and begin an impromptu performance. This is one of the most memorable scenes in the anime.
Watching this scene, I thought, “Ah, this feels like Ireland.” and “Ah, so that’s why the book is titled ‘Fairy Tale’!”
What Fairies Taught Me
As you may know, Ireland is a land of fairies. Especially in regions where the Celtic language is spoken, the presence of fairies still permeates people’s lives. There are fairy houses built in gardens, and signs saying “Beware of Fairies” (Of course, I loved fairies when I was in middle school!). Ireland is truly the source of European fantasy.
I visited Ireland for the first time last summer. What surprised me was the abundance of music throughout the city. The famous Guinness beer can depicts the Irish Harp, a symbol of Ireland, which is also engraved on the back of Irish currency. Almost every pub has live music performances. In particular, the performances and atmosphere at “O’Donoghue’s”, one of the most renowned pubs in Dublin, felt exactly like the performances of Shizuku’s grandfather and his friends.
When I extended my journey to the Aran Islands, where the Celtic language is still spoken, and woke up in a hotel on Inishmore Island, I had a strange experience. It wasn’t supernatural or mystical. When I woke up on Inishmore Island, for some reason, I felt the existence of fairies in the air. While asleep, I “understood” that music is prevalent in Ireland because it is the only art that transcends time and reaches the deceased. The popularity of tap dancing is because it’s a greeting to the earth and the deceased resting there. I think discoveries come later, like this realization.
Studio Ghibli’s “Whisper of the Heart” is not only about such “discoveries” and “encounters”, but it is also filled with the realities of daily life – living in housing complexes, the mother’s studies, the sister’s independence, the plastic buckets found even in beautiful homes… I believe it captures the tumultuous yet earnest feelings of adolescence.
Supporting this reality was director Yoshifumi Kondo. Unfortunately, two and a half years after making his directorial debut with “Whisper of the Heart”, he passed away. Reflecting on the significance of this film, one can deeply feel how great and regrettable this loss was for Studio Ghibli.
However, music, transcending time and space, will likely reach Director Kondo. When you listen closely – it’s the sound that connects the real world, the time already lost, and the time to come.
By Yukari Fujimoto. Born in 1959 in Kumamoto Prefecture. A manga researcher. After working as a book editor, she is currently a professor at Meiji University’s International Japanese Studies Department. Her main research focuses on manga culture, gender studies, and the development of shōjo manga. Her main publications include “Where Do I Belong? The Mindset Reflected in Shōjo Manga” (Asahi Bunko), “Love Critique: Narratives Surrounding ‘Family'” (Bungei Shunju), and “Admiring Yumiko Ōshima – Drinking Tea, Taking Walks, Overcoming Challenges, and Living with Cats” (Bookman), among others.