Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) Review

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) 2002 
Directed by animator Hiroyuki Morita, The Cat Returns was released back in 2002 and remains one of my personal favourite ‘non-Miyazaki’ productions. Originally planned as a 20-minute short back in 1999, it was then turned into a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. After deliberations between Hayao Miyazaki and various other staff members, Morita became responsible for translating Hiiragi’s work into a film. Not only recognised at Studio Ghibli, he has worked on projects such as Akira and Afro Samurai showing an abundance of experience in Japanese animated cinema. However The Cat Returns is Morita’s first genuine debut as a director, and its a great one from another future prospect. 
The story follows Haru, a shy and modest high school student who has the ability to talk to cats. After saving a well-spoken feline from a road accident, who turns out to be Luna ‘Prince of Cat Kingdom’, she is showered in gifts (catnip and mice) by the King and is offered the Prince’s hand in marriage. Troubled by her unwanted glorification, she finds help from ‘The Baron’ (character from Whisper of the Heart), Muta, a pot-bellied white cat and Toto, a living crow statue. However when she is forcefully taken to the ‘Cat Kingdom’, the Baron launches a rescue mission to save Haru from being trapped and transforming into a cat. 
The story is simple yet engrossing. While it may not hold the usual messages of environmentalism or militarism, or the concealed complexities of Studio Ghibli’s usual creations, its a well-told and well-constructed affair. This isn’t to suggest that The Cat Returns is a perfect story. There are problems but none that cripple the film. A slightly drawn-out second act is a bit feeble when compared to the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the portrayal of ‘The Cat Kingdom’ is disappointingly tame. After Studio Ghibli’s vivid and imaginative fantasy scenes in Whisper of the Heart, which prompted The Cat Returns creation, the depiction of the kingdom is underwhelming and slightly mundane. Apart from these niggles, the film runs smoothly and remains engaging.
In terms of the characters, The Cat Return’s ‘roster’ is small but appropriately developed. Primarily focusing on our three main protagonists and a main antagonist, the film duly constructs unique and compelling personalities. Haru comes across as a typical high school girl. Her constant clumsiness and simplemindedness does get tiresome, however there’s a charm to her character, an affection that continues throughout the film. The Baron remains an interesting character after his ‘debut’ in Whisper of the Heart. An intellectual, ‘Sherlock Holmesy’, well-groomed and dressed cat offers something different and imaginative to the usual young boy protagonist. However Muta steals the shows as the comedic relief. His tendency to lead with his stomach, a disregard for Haru and a somewhat obscure background, create a character that’s obnoxious but funny. This is all helped by superb Japanese voicework that does justice to the animation and truly represents the characters, rather than the English dub. 
Animation-wise, The Cat Returns keeps the detailed and colourful backgrounds of Ghibli ,but changes the character design. It’s not a dramatic change, but one that is visible to regular Ghibli watchers. A good use of colours create a clear distinction between the ‘fantasy‘ elements and the ‘realistic‘ setting. And the sight of a cat standing on two legs remains playfully weird, even slightly unnerving. The soundtrack is great from Yuuji Nomi and Ayano Tsuji’s theme song is probably one of the best in Ghibli’s backlog.

Overall The Cat Returns is short at 75 minutes, but is sweet. Colourful characters, simple story and well-constructed animation, ensure an easy to watch and engrossing experience. It may not be crammed full of symbolism or philosophy, but that’s simply because it’s not intended to spur great intellectual thought. Its a great debut from Hiroyuki Morita, and another fine addition to Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Recommended. 

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