Concrete Roads

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

© 1995 Aoi Hiiragi / Shueisha – Studio Ghibli – NH
We are always fleeing our hometowns. Or, at least, we are supposed to be. Everything we need to experience seems to exist at the edge of the towns we grew up in, just out of sight. It’s all far enough away to ignite our imaginations, yet still feels within reach, if only we could leave our baggage behind. Past a certain age, the only thing waiting for us back home is frustration.

I’ve ignored all of this for twenty years, sometimes through my own decisions and sometimes due to circumstances outside of my control. Whatever the reasons, I’ve been hanging around the same Jersey suburb since my family moved here when I was in first grade. I moved into my own place eventually, but kept the same zip code. I don’t particularly love it here; it’s complicated. I graduated from a local college three years ago. Some days, I’m grateful for the familiarity. Other days, I want to drive west until my car runs out of gas—hopefully near an airport or train station that can take me even further.

Whisper of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondō’s sole directing credit before his untimely death in 1998, is something remarkable. Every beat of this Studio Ghibli film (written by Hayao Miyazaki) celebrates the communities, schools, and relationships we so often overlook out of familiarity. It is steadfast in its reassurance that it is okay to not be sure of your future, that there is a value in the places we’ve known since childhood, and that the effort made in trying is as important as any goal. And perhaps most impressively, it does all this with such nuance that it allows for an entire range of experiences, without ever condemning or shaming any of them.

Shizuku is fourteen years old and discontented. She does well in school but is unsure of the path she wants to pursue. She feels suffocated by her city, Tokyo. But she loves reading and her openness to experience—initially through literature—soon sets her into motion: through the library’s lending cards, she discovers that someone has been reading most of the same books she’s read. She imagines a kindred spirit somewhere out there, and sets out to try and find him.

What makes Shizuku stand out, and what makes her a far more mature and inspiring (and tolerable) fourteen year old than I ever was, is her wide sense of curiosity and her openness to new ideas. She can be stubborn, and she’s afraid of making the wrong choices or failing at the right ones, but she always allows herself enough room to listen and to keep her eyes open. She follows a cat from the train station to an area of the city she’s never been to before. She finds an antique store and converses with the owner, who tells her the stories behind some of its wares. This small taste of adventure inspires and refreshes her. She becomes more aware of her city, and the people all around her that she never really knew.

Shizuku’s discovery of the antique shop is a definitive moment in her life. Not only does the shop amaze her, it also, eventually, leads her to uncover the identity of the person from her library mystery: Seiji, a boy from her school. He is an apprentice violin-maker, confident in what he wants to do with the next few decades of his life, and about to head off to Italy for a few months, or possibly longer. This is horrible news for Shizuku, especially since they’ve started to fall in love, and only serves to remind her of her own uncertainties about the future.

School frames all of this in a way that will feel familiar to most of the film’s audience. It’s something always there, always present. There are standardized tests to prepare for and rigid schedules to work around. Shizuku’s mother is finishing up her post-college education and feeling its stresses and financial burdens. Schooling permeates Whisper of the Heart in ways we all can recognize: homework, early mornings, sleep deficiency, test anxiety, classroom gossip—the daily routines of academic life.

It’s often difficult for a film to portray mandatory education, especially high school, in a way that’s not either mostly tangential to the real plot, or just plain miserable. (Though perhaps I’m just projecting, based on my own middling high school experience.) There seems to be an assumption in popular culture that school is largely just an obstacle to overcome, something that gets in the way of the truly important things in life, like getting out and finally seeing the world for what it really is. Seiji has this opportunity, a chance for escape, while Shizuku doesn’t. It’s a very particular kind of frustration, one with which I’m intimately familiar.

Shizuku, though, holds onto her curiosity for experience, and an eagerness to try new things. She decides to channel this energy into a writing project, something she’s never attempted before, hoping to finish her first story before Seiji returns from Italy. She plans to present it to his grandfather, the man who owns the antique store. She is utterly terrified of failure but absolutely determined to finish the story.

It’s tough to access that kind of perseverance, especially when filled with so much doubt. A fear of failure looms largely over most any major choice we have to make. Maybe we don’t know enough yet, or maybe we simply aren’t good enough. Shizuku feels that same fear and embraces it—she knows she still has so much to learn, but never lets that stop her. She stays up late, researching and writing, while her grades take a dive. Her family becomes concerned, but she never intends to abandon school entirely; she simply wants to try something for herself, even if it means failing. It’s a lesson I am still trying to learn.

Shizuku ends up writing a wonderful story based on “The Baron”—a cat statuette from the antique store—filled with the type of fantastic environments and storylines often associated with Studio Ghibli films. The reason the story is wonderful, though, is not because it’s perfect (it isn’t, as Seiji’s grandfather tells her), but because it shows such earnest effort, as well as a kind of wide-eyed ambition that is inimitable and intangible, things that seem to drive most any worthwhile endeavor. This is what Shizuku learns to value: trying—even when self-doubt exists—thinking, testing yourself, and persevering. Whatever the outcome, you will have learned.

Over the course of the film, Tokyo itself appears new to her, as well. The film occasionally grants Shizuku a moment to witness a sunrise or a sunset, something that paints her old familiar streets in gorgeous new shades. Seiji shows her the magic of the jeweled eyes of the Baron statue—which illuminate when viewed with just the proper amount of sunlight—revealing an entirely different perspective on a character she already admired. Whisper of the Heart dares us, like it dares Shizuku, to look at our cities and surroundings with a fresh pair of eyes.

This is a daunting task for anyone, especially if you’ve spent almost two decades in the same place. Our preconceptions usually dictate how we see familiar places, often before we ever really have a chance to realize they’re taking hold. I take the same route to work every single day without being aware, eat at the same restaurants I decided I liked best however many years ago, speak to the same people I’ve always known. When I start paying attention, though, this town can still surprise me, even after twenty years. I find brand new things everywhere, like the used bookstore in the center of town filled with long out-of-print volumes; or the tiny Italian restaurant on the other side of the hill with the owner who stops by each table to ask everyone if they’re enjoying their meal; or the small, independent movie theater tucked in right next to it, which shows the kinds of movies people might read essays about online.

Throughout the film, Shizuku works on a translation of John Denver’s “Country Roads”, which her class plans to sing. She struggles to find the proper phrasing and a way to capture the spirit of a city that simply doesn’t excite her anymore. Her coping mechanism involves writing a parody called “Concrete Roads” as well, with lyrics that swap the rustic idyll of the original for modern Tokyo’s development and sprawl. She’s mortified when Seiji discovers both versions of the song, embarrassed by her inexperience as a writer, but by the end of the film, she is proud of her work; by both translating it and adapting it, she’s found her place in Tokyo all over again.

I don’t plan to stick around this Jersey suburb forever. I know there is a wealth of experience waiting for me beyond the borders of this place. There are so many things one can’t learn at home, perspectives we can’t be exposed to, people we can’t meet. At some point, it’s simply time to see what else is out there. But this doesn’t mean that we have to forget where it is we’ve come from, or all the places we’ve been. Keeping our hometowns with us as we go out into the wider world only makes those new experiences more meaningful. It grants us a point of reference for everything else we’ll ever encounter. It helps us appreciate our differences and try harder to relate with others. Whatever we can manage to hold onto will, if we’re honest, stay with us wherever we go.