By Kim Hollis
July 25, 2003
The cat came back the very next day.
The cat came back. They thought it was a goner,
But the cat came back; it just wouldn't stay away.
Such are the woes of our young heroine Haru Yoshioka in the latest offering from Studio Ghibli, The Cat Returns. A typically self-doubting 17-year-old, she’s struggling with getting to school on time, an unfulfilled crush, and a general lack of confidence around her peers.
That want of courage doesn’t mean Haru is bereft of compassion, though. As she is walking home one day with her friend Hiromi, she sees a strange, dark cat carrying a package. He’s somewhat oblivious to oncoming traffic and walks out in front of a speeding truck, so Haru rushes out and saves him by scooping him up with Hiromi’s Lacrosse stick, which breaks in the process. Little does she know that this act of kindness will set off a series of events with the potential to affect her life in a very dramatic way.
It seems that this particular feline is the prince of the Cat Kingdom, which means that every cat who lives in this mystical, faraway world now owes Haru a huge debt of gratitude. An enormous kitty procession arrives at her doorstep, complete with black-suited secret agents who are on duty to protect the ridiculously fat and pampered king.
The regal feline’s secretary Natori announces His Majesty’s arrival and reads a formal decree outlining the royal appreciation for Haru’s bravery in saving their Prince Lune. Natori gives the girl a scroll and tells her that wonderful things will be happening to her very soon. After a terse (and for some reason hilarious) “thanks,” the king and his entourage withdraw.
Upon waking up the next morning, Haru learns that the “wonderful things” she has been promised are more problematic that delightful. Hiromi has arisen to the spectacle of dozens of brand new Lacrosse sticks scattered across the floor of her home, and thinks that Haru is playing some sort of practical joke. Haru leaves her house to find that it is surrounded by tall cattail plants. As she walks to school, hordes of kitties follow behind her, and when she opens her locker, Haru finds it to be full of little gift boxes containing mice.
It gets worse. After falling flat on her face while taking out some garbage, Haru runs into yet another cat. This time it’s Natoru, the King’s Assistant Secretary. Haru wants nothing more than to throttle him, but he apologizes profusely for the misunderstandings, saying they wanted nothing more than to please her. After all, the cats of the kingdom want nothing but the best for Prince Lune’s future bride.
Clearly, this sends our heroine into a panic, but she becomes determined to solve the problem when she hears a beautiful voice. It tells her to go to “The Crossroads,” where she will find a large white cat that will direct her to the “cat office.”
It is at this point that the story turns truly magical, not to mention a special treat for fans of all things Ghibli. The large white cat just happens to be very recognizable, as he is the aloof and mysterious feline from the gentle and heartwarming Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart. And now, the viewer begins to understand the reason for the specific “Cat Returns” title.
It becomes a little bit more clear when the big white cat, who we learn is named Muta, takes Haru to the Cat Office. The denizen of that office is one Baron Humbert Von Gikkemgen, another of the characters from Whisper of the Heart (and the second, most important cat to return). In his case, however, he is actually a fictional character, created by various people but most specifically Shizuku Tsukishima, the young heroine of Whisper of the Heart who actually has a lot of similarities with Haru. The Baron tells Haru that he exists in this world because of the person who created him, and along with Muta and the gargoyle-bird-come-to life Toto, agrees to help Haru in her journey to the cat kingdom.
Before they can do anything, though, a pussycat army arrives and takes Haru away to prepare for her impending nuptials. What follows is a whimsical and occasionally surreal adventure as the Baron and his associates arrive on the scene to help their new friend, but ultimately, the answers lie within Haru herself.
It is the willingness to tap into the capricious and idealistic nature of youth that makes The Cat Returns resonate and shimmer. Part of this sparkle is achieved through the soft and simple story, unsurprisingly based on a concept by foremost Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki and a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Never overly complicated or ponderous, the quiet story has much in common with Whisper of the Heart, as both truly grasp the emotions that emerge during the bridge between childhood and adulthood.
The art of the film is also responsible for the sentimentality that embodies The Cat Returns. Director Hiroyuki Morita has created characters and imagery in a style all his own; it’s hardly typical “anime” because the humans in the story have a distinctly different look from that which viewers might be accustomed to seeing. It’s much more natural and even expressive, and makes for a stirring complement to the fantastical scenes that occur in the kingdom of cats. Also, the movie’s art is glorious, with festive colors and gorgeous landscapes that are a treat for the eye. Though nowhere near Miyazaki’s degree of talent (yet), Morita has an amazing eye for what works in relation to the thematic elements of the movie, and draws the viewer into the movie like a child to a treasured book.
The accompanying score from Yuuji Nomi suits the story and art perfectly, as it is somewhat unobtrusive and delicate. Almost like a gentle tap on the shoulder, the soundtrack reminds the viewer that The Cat Returns is a fragile flight of fancy, just on the edge of being as unbelievable as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but something you still want to give your heart.
A timeless examination of fleeting youth and the inevitable emotions that follow, The Cat Returns is an inspiring tug at the heartstrings even as its unabashed comedy keeps the proceedings light. It’s an idyllic companion film to Whisper of the Heart, with both being worthy additions to the Studio Ghibli catalog of movies that reflect on childhood dreams and wishes.