Sunday, March 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #45: The Cat Returns

Back in 2002, when Disney released Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent SPIRITED AWAY in America, it kicked off a nice business partnership between the two companies, a side effect of which has been the release of several Studio Ghibli films on DVD here. THE CAT RETURNS is a particularly interesting entry in their collective body of work, both tying in loosely to a past film and marking a young director’s debut. It’s very cute, whimsical, and imaginative, and fits into the Studio Ghibli tradition nicely while not being a total retread. You sort of know what to expect, but there are surprises along the way.

Our protagonist is Haru (voice of Chizuru Ikewaki), a girl in high school going through all sorts of problems. She’s habitually late, not very popular, and hopelessly swooning over a boy who’s already got a girlfriend. Typical teenage girl drama, until she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat stands up and thanks her, and later that evening an entire procession of cats arrive with their king in tow, informing her that she has in fact saved the prince of the Cat Kingdom. The cats start sending her gifts, and promise that as a capper they will take her to their kingdom to marry the prince. This, needless to say, freaks Haru out, but a mysterious voice and a fat white cat named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe) lead her to the Cat Bureau, a miniature house inhabited by a handsome catman named Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada). He promises to help her avoid her fate, but a herd of cats quickly bears her off to the Cat Kingdom, and Baron and Muta have no choice but to follow her.

This film is technically a follow-up to WHISPER OF THE HEART, a 1995 Ghibli production which introduced the characters of Muta and the Baron. Apparently the original idea was to revive them for a short film for a planned theme park, but when that didn’t go through the Studio decided to expand the story into a feature and use it to test out the directing skills of animator Hiroyuki Morita (by this point Hayao Miyazaki was eager to find a potential successor, though judging from the IMDB his retirement still has yet to arrive.) Once again I have not actually seen the important preceding work and so can’t make any comparisons.

I will say that this is a very sprightly picture, never dwelling too long on one thing or in one place. This is a blessing and a curse; the film can never develop any one aspect in a lot of depth, but at the same time it never gets stuck exploring something uninteresting. It’s light fare, of course, never very serious in the way some Ghibli films can be, and this again has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it makes the film less memorable, on the other,
it’s a film about a kingdom of cats and there’s only so much gravity you can get out of that to start with.

Cat lovers will get a kick out of the film, that’s for sure- though many of the cats here stand on two legs and talk and wear something resembling clothing, they’re not anthropomorphic to the degree most cartoon animals are. They are, in their mannerisms and even dialogue, cats, and their kingdom- originally conceived by author Aoi Hiragi as a kind of kitty heaven- is a weirdly farcical land where the sun is always at its peak and the tyrant king (voiced with great enthusiasm by Tetsuro Tamba) defenestrates subjects who displease him. This is pretty much how a cat civilization would be run, and the combination of cuteness and insanity is appealing.

Like many Ghibli films, THE CAT RETURNS deals with a spirit world separate from our own, and interestingly enough briefly raises the concept that objects that an artist puts his or her heart and soul into gain a spirit of their own (this explains how Baron manifests in this world, sort of.) This, of course, plays off the animism and spirit worship that has long existed in Japanese culture, and as in similar films the spirit world serves as a place where the protagonist can work out her emotional and developmental issues. In this case, Haru is suffering from a lack of identity- she doesn’t know who she is, or believe in herself that much, and in the Cat Kingdom this is particularly dangerous; there she runs the risk of losing herself altogether and actually becoming a cat. It’s an interesting conflict, and Haru is a charming enough character that we enjoy her development.

All in all, a solid first venture for Morita as director, and as such a good sign for Studio Ghibli’s continued success whenever the older guard finally steps down. Parts of it border on forgettable, but it’s entertaining and something I wouldn’t mind watching again. A lesser entry in this particular studio’s body of work, but that’s not saying a lot. By a more objective standard, this is a darn good time.

Adapted from a comic by Aoi Hiragi
Screenplay by Reiko Yoshida
Directed by Hiroyuki Morita

Grade: B+

[Click the image above to purchase the film on DVD.]

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