REVIEW: DVD Release: The Cat Returns

Film: The Cat Returns
Release date: 26th September 2005
Certificate: PG
Running time: 75 mins
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Starring: Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Aki Maeda, Takayuki Yamada, Hitomi Satô
Genre: Anime
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Despite the talented Hiroyuki Morita helping with the animation of a variety of Studio Ghibli classics over the years, including the likes of Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Cat Returns marks his one and only directorial debut. This opportunity was not wasted, however, with a film truly transporting both audience and protagonists alike to a magical realm as only a Ghibli film can.

Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is a perpetually tardy teenager with a tendency to oversleep, skip meals and fail in her attempts at creeping into class unnoticed. When walking home with a friend, she sees a cat in danger of being hit by a van and opts to rescue it, scooping it up in her lacrosse stick and hurtling it to safety just in time. As she brushes herself off, the cat stands up, bows and thanks her, leaving her doubting her sanity.

Later that night, the Kingdom of Cats descends upon her home with the king in tow to personally thank her, for the cat she rescued was his son, Prince Lune, heir to the throne. The cats undertake a project to express their ‘maximum gratitude’ to Haru, who wakes up smelling of cat-nip, before finding a garden of cats-tails and her school locker filled with mice. These cat-based gifts take their toll on Haru, and upon spotting one of the cats from the kingdom, she expresses her anger. At this point, it is suggested that she come to the kingdom and marry Prince Lune. Her nonsensical mumbling is taken as a yes and she is left with the knowledge that the cats will be coming to claim her, whether she likes it or not.

A mysterious voice floats through the air and warns Haru not to go to the kingdom, but to go to the crossroads and find a large white cat to take her to the Cat Bureau. After she accidentally sits on a plump, disgruntled cat by the name of Muta (Tetsu Watanabe), she is begrudgingly shown the way to the Bureau where she meets the Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and Toto. As they discuss a way in which to help Haru, dozens of cats burst through the doors and windows, kidnapping her and dragging her to the Cat Kingdom. While Muta manages to stay with them, the Baron and Toto are left behind to seek out the kingdom themselves.

Upon her arrival, Haru begins to gradually turn into a cat and weeps while she has fish presented to her as her dinner at a banquet. The Baron throws the feast into chaos as he arrives to reclaim Haru and, with the help of Muta, the three of them take on the guards of the kingdom and enter into a long and arduous maze in an attempt to reach the portal back to the real world. ..

Studio Ghibli have become associated with beautifully crafted images, surreal, fantastical and often mythical worlds, as well as a deep-rooted sense of humour, which is expressed in all of their films. The Cat Returns is no exception to this, although the surreal humour is perhaps more in line with the likes of Pom Poko than it is with Spirited Away. For instance, the cats of the kingdom are differently marked, and in one scene a group of black-and-white cats, whose fur coats appear as suits, enter into a neighbourhood as bodyguards, kicking at the faces of other cats and hurling them over walls and into trees. Further humour is derived from the misfortune of cats, when later they are hurled out of a window hundreds of feet above the ground because they fail to entertain Haru.

Whilst the film is primarily comedic in content, much of that humour is thanks to the lack of empathy that any of the cats seem able to experience. Muta is a source of constant amusement with a permanent attitude problem and the cats of the kingdom have a seeming inability to empathise with Haru on any level. Natoru, one of the servants to the king, is the most insensitive, and upon finding out that Haru won’t go to the feast because Muta has drowned in a bowl of cat-nip jelly, rather than help, he simply wheels the tub of jelly to the table so that she will follow. It is not a simple comedy, however, with a complex range of emotions explored within the film, including love, friendship and sanity itself.

The story deals with a sense of lost or hidden identity within the characters, most of whom are either losing or have lost themselves, or those who are not as they appear to be. For example, the king has a gradually slipping sanity, and he continues to lose a grip on his mind as well as his kingdom. This is initially considered in the introduction to the Baron and Toto, both of whom are inanimate statues given souls by the love their creators had for them. Neither of them are who they appear to be and their cohort Muta turns out to have been hiding his true identity as the violent criminal Ronaldo Moon from everyone. The Baron’s advice to a baffled Haru was to always remember who she is, but as she turns progressively into a cat, she gradually loses a grip of reality. It is not until the finale of the film, when backed into a corner, that she finally takes a firm grip on her identity and stands up to the king and all of his servants.

The Cat Returns follows the standard process of equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium, but can be considered as an example of embracing change as well as the things we have. Haru is changed by her experiences and by the end of the film is a polar opposite to the bed-headed girl rushing to make it to school on time in the beginning. Rather than marvel at her lucky escape from a feline fate, or revelling in the events of the past day, Haru adapts her life completely: she is awake, on time, able to prepare breakfast and even goes so far as to steal the Baron’s tea recipe.

The return of Muta and the Baron, previously seen in Whisper Of The Heart, may not have been widely anticipated, but it is certainly appreciated with the production of a funny, witty animation which can proudly join its Ghibli siblings, and unlike the Baron’s secret tea recipe, this film does not vary each time. JK

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