Studio Ghibli Collection: The Cat Returns

January 6, 2005 on 10:06 pm | In The Cat Returns | Comments Off on Studio Ghibli Collection: The Cat Returns

The 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns is the first that is in no way related to Miyazaki Hayao or Takahata Isao. It looks, and feels, the least “Ghibli” of all of the efforts. Yet this is still an enjoyable adventure.

Based upon Hiiragi Aoi’s manga and using two of the characters introduced in Whisper of the Heart (in very different ways), The Cat Returns is about high-school student Haru. One day as Haru walks home from school, she sees a cat about to get hit by a truck. Running onto the road, she saves the cat with her lacrosse stick. The cat stands and thanks her, before running off.
That night, Haru is visited by a procession of cats. It turns out that the cat she saved was Prince Lune. The king of the Cat Kingdom wants to personally thank her for this, and gives her many rewards. When Haru learns that the king wishes to marry her off to Prince Lune, she seeks the aid of Muta and Baron of the Cat Business Office. Still, she is whisked off to the Cat Kingdom and begins to turn into a cat. In order to avoid succumbing, Haru must somehow find herself!

This is not an actual sequel as it simply shares two characters from Whisper of the Heart. As such, the cat is not returning from anything, and the title should be read as “The Cat Returns the Favour”. As a stand-alone feature, this film is flatly excellent. Of special note is that at 75 minutes it is the shortest Studio Ghibli film ever. At the sixty minute mark it runs clean out of material to use, but this is remedied by the fact that fifteen minutes is enough for an escape scene and a conclusion to Haru’s adventure.

The Cat Returns is a small film but frequently hilarious in a way that most Studio Ghibli productions are not. The time spent in the Cat Kingdom is essentially a large series of jokes, and really quite funny. The time when the cat king is trying to get Haru to cheer up is almost tear-inducingly good and not the sort of thing one would expect.

The only real problem with The Cat Returns is the need for Haru to have learned something from it all. There were no real difficulties in her life or about her character, short of waking up late, that needed to be remedied by a visit to a magical realm. The idea “to prevent becoming a cat, you must find yourself” seems to be contrived simply so there can be some variety of positive message sprung from this film. When Haru lists all of the things that she’s done as a learning experience, this grates with what is really a simple adventure film. Self-improvement is all well and good, but not strictly necessary in every instance.

This is a Studio Ghibli film that pays attention to the small stuff, such as Muta and Baron preparing whipped cream to eat with a cake, and then decorating it. Muta wielding a whisk and Baron using an icing pourer is simply excellent.
For those who have seen Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns may be difficult to watch. This is because Kondo Yoshifumi did not design it, and Baron’s design has been watered down a little bit to make him easier to animate. This is fair enough, and eventually one gets used to it.
The biggest failing in the design, then, is that Haru does not look like a Ghibli heroine. Studio Ghibli films have instantly recognisable characters thanks to Miyazaki and Kondo having the same aesthetic feel. Not so here, which differentiates the movie further from its studio roots. Studio Ghibli’s trademark simplistic charm is nowhere in evidence, and the characters look much rougher.

Still, the film is amazingly creative; the procession of cats initially looks awkward as they walk bipedally, but then the cooler cats come into play. The variety of cats is a large source of delight: the body guard and executioner cats are hilarious. Of particular note is that the Cat King’s court is attended by cats of all cultures: Ancient Egyptian, middle eastern, and Tudors, of all things.
Nomi Yuji’s score is not as memorable as his work on Whisper of the Heart, but the film ends on a soothingly bouncy song proving that all is right with the world.

The Cat Returns is unique fare; it’s not like anything Studio Ghibli has done before, and not really like anything that’s been placed on the market in the last decade. If it weren’t for its message, this would be the perfect brief adventure film.

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