If you’re looking for movies with strong female characters who aren’t solely identified as the love interest, watch Studio Ghibli. Pretty much any Studio Ghibli.
But today I want to talk about one of my persistent favourites, the often under-rated Whisper of the Heart. Spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minimal!
The protagonist is a girl! Not unsurprising in a movie made by Hayao Miyazaki – his female protagonists substantially outnumber the male. Shizuku is in junior high, and she is an avid and passionate reader. She notices one day that most of the books she checks out of the school library have already been borrowed by a Seiji Amasawa, and begins trying to find out who he is.
It’s really not a spoiler to mention that Seiji turns out to be the cute-but-annoying guy she keeps running into, as it’s pretty obvious. Seiji is an unusually appealing love-interest – he’s sometimes a bit of a jerk in his attempts to get Shizuku’s attention, but it’s not particularly intentional and he’s a well-realized character in his own right, with an unusual ambition of his own.
So there is a romance, but it’s not all or even the biggest part of Shizuku’s character development. That is reserved for Shizuku’s attempt to transition from merely loving to read to writing stories of her own. It’s a movie about an aspiring writer! Someone young and determined and still struggling to figure it out. (I would recommend this movie and the Emily of New Moon books by L. M. Montgomery to any young aspiring writer – they’re very honest about how hard it is and how much work it takes, but they’re still encouraging.)
As for the other animated ladies in the movie, there are several! There are eight ‘named’ female characters, as opposed to only four male – plus the Baron, who… well, he’s a special case. Shizuku’s sister Shiho is actually one of my favourite characters in the movie. She’s a university student, very take-charge and bossy as older sisters often are (I’m allowed to say this, I am one), and only peripherally involved in Shizuku’s story. She nags Shizuku about her grades and how important school is, and complains that Shizuku doesn’t do her share of the house-work, which is clearly true. Part-way through the movie, she moves out, leaving their shared bedroom to Shizuku, which is important to her later.
Shiho provides one of the clearest examples of the fact that, while Shizuku is totally immersed in her own crisis, other people’s lives are going on around her. Shiho has her own story, of which we see only tantalizing hints. She visits an aunt, talks to her mother about moving out and managing money, reminds Shizuku that school is important and sends letters that she doesn’t want Shizuku to look at too closely. That’s all we know, but she’s very clearly a person in her own right, adding an element of depth to the movie because it’s not an isolated story floating in film-space – it’s a moving window focused on Shizuku that sometimes passes other people with other stories.
Shizuku’s mother Asako is also a student – she’s completing grad school, so money is tight for the family. She’s concerned about her younger daughter’s grades, but has only limited time and resources to ride herd on Shizuku, having her own studies to do! Again, she’s a well-recognized individual with her own priorities, who clashes with the protagonist without in any way being a villain.
Shizuku’s best friend Yuko is a staunch supporter who has a crisis of her own during the movie. She and Shizuku sing with two more of their female friends, and eat lunch in the school nurse’s office – she seems very friendly with the girls, and takes an interest in what’s going on in their lives. In contrast, while Shizuku’s father the librarian, Seiji’s grandfather the antiquarian, and Seiji himself are all important to the story, I can think of only one scene where they actually interact with each other. Like women in all too many other movies, the male characters appear primarily when interacting with a member of the opposite sex, usually someone more important to the plot than they are.
Add in the facts that Whisper of the Heart is beautiful to look at, has genuine struggle without any need for a cartoony villain, and is about an aspiring novelist, and it is no wonder that this is one of my very favourite movies.