A breakdown of what makes a film score great and why Yuji Nomi’s work on “Whisper of the Heart” gets a solid 10/10.
As a university student who’s been stuck taking online classes for the past two years, lack of motivation was a feeling I gradually became very familiar with. Additionally as a creative, being so isolated from my community made it extra difficult to push forward in my tasks and projects. One of the many adjustments I made was creating a study playlist to improve focus when writing. I discovered a love for orchestra and film scores, and soon I was paying more attention to the music than the plot when watching movies.
My latest favorite film score accomplishes a lot more than just keeping me on task. Composed by Yuji Nomi, the score for the 1995 Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart also serves as a reminder to continue pursuing my aspirations. This animated feature centers around Shizuku, a middle-school girl who discovers that all the library books she’s checked out have been previously read by a fellow student named Seiji. In her quest to track down this elusive boy, she falls in love and explores her talents as a young writer. It’s a heartfelt coming-of-age story that discusses the trials and tribulations of being an artist. The magic of this film is definitely enhanced by its soundtrack.
Nomi’s early work included creating music for a friend’s art performances, which caught the eye of Ryuichi Sakamoto, an acclaimed composer. Sakamoto later became his mentor and they collaborated on a few film scores, including the epic biographical drama The Last Emperor with its delightfully dramatic and heavy sound. Despite Whisper of the Heart being Nomi’s first solo project, I consider it to be his best. To me, a great score keeps the audience engaged in the fictional universe by matching the theme of the film and pushes the plot along by enhancing the mood of a scene. To fully discuss why I think Whisper of the Heart accomplishes both of these goals, I’ll have to talk about the plot. So:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Featuring 22 whimsical tracks, Nomi’s score cues all perfectly match the setting and main character of the film. Surrounded by contemporary structures and high-rise buildings in Tokyo, the bookish Shizuku prefers to immerse herself in fictional fantasy worlds instead. Some tracks are more playful, reflecting her ability to find magic in the mundane. For instance, “The Song of Baron” is named after an antique cat statuette that inspires the hero in Shizuku’s story. But Nomi also mixes modernity with a very classical sound. Tracks like “The Cat Chase” and “Taking the Train” have clear Baroque references while featuring a funky electronic shell. The mix is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before, and is a bit different from the typical light and fantastical Studio Ghibli score. But it works perfectly for this film, reflecting Shizuku’s environment and position in between these two opposite worlds.
One day, she decides to follow a stray cat from the subway through unfamiliar neighborhoods, ultimately leading her to a peculiar antique shop. It’s here she finally meets the mysterious Seiji, who is the grandson of the shop owner. Though they initially get off on the wrong foot, they begin to develop feelings for one another during Shizuku’s frequent visits to the shop. A pivotal moment in their relationship is influenced by music. Seiji dreams of being a luthier and practices making violins at the shop. While observing his work, they end up impromptu performing a rendition of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” together. Seiji plays the song on the violin, which he secretly learned just for Shizuku. Meanwhile, she sings lyrics that she translated into Japanese herself. Without needing any dialogue before, during, or after this scene, the audience still understands the significance of this moment to their relationship. There are two versions of Shizuku’s rendition in the score, one with violin backing and one without. Both are so earnest and wholesome, matching the young lovers completely.
This score also chronicles her journey as a writer. When Seiji is whisked off to a two-month luthier program in Italy, Shizuku challenges herself to write a short story within that same time frame. While working on this project, she starts sleeping late and her grades start to suffer as a result. She also begins to second-guess her talents and is afraid she isn’t good enough to be with Seiji. To be stuck in a continuous cycle of self-doubt is unfortunately a common experience for many creatives. This idea is captured in Track 18, “Forest of Anxiety”, with its almost jeering tone and increasingly fast pace. It plays in the background of Shizuku’s nightmare, heightening the tension of the scene. Track 19, “Reminiscence”, is vastly different. It plays when Shizuku finally receives external validation that her story is good. She immediately starts sobbing. That moment of pure relief, when she finally can accept that her hard work has paid off, is portrayed so vulnerable on-screen and reflected into the tender and soothing melody.
When people recall their youth, they often recall their days of being carefree. For many creatives, that untroubled attitude means being able to create just for the sake of creating. You’re more able to write without worrying if it’ll get published, sing just because you like the tune or paint even if it won’t show at a gallery. As you grow older, other factors like finances have to be considered and unless your craft is your career, creative projects can get pushed to the backburner. To me, that carefree attitude is the essence of being an artist. This rare purity and lack of constraint in creative spirit is something that Whisper of the Heart and Nomi’s score inspires me to chase. As I listen to these earnestly optimistic tracks, I’m reminded to just take a deep breath and really listen to what my heart whispers.