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Olivia Newton-John’s cover of the John Denver staple “Take Me Home, Country Roads” isn’t the most likely soundtrack for the opening scene of a soft animated slice-of-life movie about growing up in Tokyo. Yet as the opening sequence of Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart rolls, with its sweeping nightscape scenes of urban Japan, Olivia Newton-John croons about the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River.
The song doesn’t just set the tone for the opening montage, it also plays an integral part in the movie’s storyline. Junior-high student Shizuku, an aspiring writer, is asked by her choir friends to translate the song because they want to sing it at an upcoming graduation performance. Shizuku knows she can’t just literally translate it — after all, they live in urban Tokyo — so after penning a joke translation called “Concrete Roads,” she struggles with trying to convey the specific feeling that “Country Roads” conjures. Her efforts to communicate the song’s poetry weaves in with the movie’s overarching theme of Shizuku trying to find herself during a tricky stage of adolescence.
At first glance, it’s a bit funny that a song so specifically about Appalachia fits so beautifully in Whisper of the Heart. But the way writer Hayao Miyazaki and director Yoshifumi Kondô use the song in the story speaks to a deeper understanding of “Country Roads” than the lyrics about West Virginia geography might suggest.
“Country Roads” is one of John Denver’s most popular songs. The lyrics are tailored to West Virginia, but the nostalgic longing for home that Denver imbues into the song is universal. The song has been covered by more than 150 different artists in 19 different languages. Some covers choose to adapt the lyrics to their own experiences — Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole rewrote the song to be about West Mākaha, while reggae band Toot and the Maytals changed it to West Jamaica. Other artists sing it word-for-word, even when it’s translated into other languages.
In the case of Whisper of the Heart, it’s not a specific place that Shizuku longs for, it’s a specific feeling. Shizuku’s translation is about finding courage and belonging, following a personal destiny, even in the face of failure, rejection, and growing up. In that way, it speaks strongly to the emotional core of “Country Roads”.
The thing about “Country Roads” is that it’s not West Virginia Denver really yearns for, it’s “the place I belong.” Denver, who lived in Colorado most of his life, isn’t even from West Virginia. Nor are the song’s co-writers, Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff. In fact, Nivert and Danoff based the song on a drive to Maryland, and picked West Virginia for the lyrics because they needed a state with four syllables. (Massachusetts, where Danoff is from, was a close runner-up.)
When artists rewrite the lyrics, they aren’t just making superficial changes to the song. They’re painting a picture of the place they long for. The more specific details they put into the song, the stronger that feeling becomes. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s cover, for instance, basically transplants the entire song to the beaches of his home, as he croons about the island sky and sunshine.
The Whisper of the Heart version takes a different approach, stripping the song of any particular location, and instead focusing on the feeling of longing. To Shizuku, the song is so powerful because it’s about belonging, and she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere in particular. She’s feeling the ache of growing up, as her sister moves out, her classmates move on, and she struggles to identify what she really wants out of life. To her, the song’s longing is about so much more than a physical place. It’s about navigating the uncertainty of adolescence and finding a road away from her hometown.
Shizuku debuts her full translation of “Country Roads” to Seiji, the boy she keeps running into, while visiting his grandfather’s antiques store. While she’s initially annoyed with him for teasing her about her “Concrete Roads” version of the song, she’s drawn to him and his passion for the craft of making musical instruments. When they sing her “Country Roads” cover together, along with Seiji’s grandfather and his friends, it’s a payoff for the film’s wistful melancholy, and the song’s nostalgia. Whisper of the Heart is an underrated and underseen Ghibli movie, but this scene speaks to everything that’s sweet, wise, and joyful about the studio — in this moment, at least Shizuku knows who she is, and she’s found the place where she belongs.