Studio Ghibli don’t really go in for sequels. They could be forgiven for doing so. Spirited Away won an Oscar, but never got a sequel. Several other films are ripe for a sequel, My Neighbour Totoro in particular. But the Studio seems to have an admirable approach of always looking forward and doing something fresh and different. There is one slight exception to that, and it’s hardly a sequel at all, but The Cat Returns is strongly connected to Whisper of the Heart.
The first thing to recognise here is that the title is misleading, and that only happens for the English translation. “The Cat Returns”: that really sounds like a sequel, doesn’t it. But the original Japanese title translates better as “The Cat’s Repayment”, referring to the actual plot of the film (Haru’s reward for saving the prince). “The Cat Returns” is obviously a reference instead to the Baron, who appeared as a statue and in a dream sequence in Whisper of the Heart. The idea here, and it’s a rewarding one for fans of the film series, is that Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart managed to polish the gem inside her and write her story, inspired by the Baron statue. That story became The Cat Returns. That’s also why Muta appears in both films. The real Muta inspires the fictional Muta in The Cat Returns. But all of this is never explicit. It’s not actually stated in the film, so you don’t need to have seen Whisper of the Heart first. I would recommend doing so, because it makes for a richer viewing experience (the music even references the earlier film towards the end, in a euphoric moment for Ghibli fans), but it’s far from necessary. In fact, the US releases were in reverse order.
To get to the story itself, Haru is a young girl who saves the life of a cat. He turns out to be a prince from the Cat Kingdom, and while he is away from the kingdom his father decides to reward Haru for her brave deed. Her rewards are things that cats would like but are not much use to Haru, so instead the king decides to grant her the privilege of visiting the Cat kingdom and marrying the prince. That doesn’t really appeal to a human girl, understandably, but she manages to seek help from the Baron and Muta at the Cat Bureau. A whole new world opens up to her, one where cats can walk and talk, and have a whole kingdom of their own. But Haru is in danger of losing herself there.
So a fairly obvious message springs from this. Haru starts to turn into a cat, and has to hold on to her identity and believe in who she truly is. As the Baron says, “Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.” It’s a compelling message, and following on from Spirited Away, a similar thing happens with the main character. Just like Chihiro, Haru changes throughout the film, gaining confidence, so it’s another coming-of-age film. One theory is that the Cat Kingdom is a form of afterlife, and that Haru actually gets hit by the vehicle when saving the prince, but that doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of the film as a story written by Shizuku. It seems far too dark, and there is little in the film to support the idea, interesting though it is.
This was the first film to be released by Studio Ghibli after Spirited Away, and I think its reputation suffers because of that. People were perhaps hoping for more of the same, another surreal, Oscar-winning triumph. But Studio Ghibli doesn’t work like that. There are certain themes that run through a lot of their films, and most of them have stunningly beautiful artwork (this is no exception), but they always do something fresh with every film. I would say the demographic for this one is considerably younger. That doesn’t make it inferior. There need to be some films that younger children can watch as well. But I have to confess right now that The Cat Returns is my favourite Ghibli film, and the one I have watched more than any other. I can’t pretend it is the best, but as I have mentioned before “best” and “favourite” don’t have to be the same thing. Fans of various genres often tie themselves in knots trying to argue themselves into corners getting the two to align. They don’t need to.
So The Cat Returns is far from perfect. At times it is confusing in its storytelling. After multiple viewings I still have no clear idea what exactly happens when the cat king is defeated, and why half his hair falls off. And there is one particularly irritating moment in the maze scene where the guards line up to make fake walls, and are then knocked down like dominos. Lampshading the stupidity doesn’t help. Without the guards there it isn’t a maze at all. There’s a straight line path through. So it’s not their fault at all. It just isn’t a maze.
That aside, it’s a fabulous film. If you want something to watch with your children that will be suitable for them and heart-warming and happy, go for this one. The music is my favourite of all the films, and the artwork is truly gorgeous. The characters are inspiring, particularly Haru and the Baron, and Muta is loveable and funny. There are some stunning, magical moments that will stay with you. My favourite scene is Haru’s discovery of the Cat Bureau, following Muta over roofs and through alleys, all beautifully drawn, and accompanied by a truly sublime score.
The voice cast is brilliant, of course. That goes without saying for a Ghibli film. Cary Elwes makes a triumphant return as the Baron, following on from his cameo performance in Whisper of the Heart. Anne Hathaway plays Haru, Peter Boyle is Muta and Elliot Gould is Toto. Fans of other genre films and television will enjoy hearing Tim Curry, Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: DS9) and Kristine Sutherland (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) in other roles in the film.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 8 in particular are all completely magnificent:
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
There doesn’t seem to be a good trailer that uses the English dub, but the one below will give you a taster. Next time we will be looking at another triumph from the Studio Ghibli collection: Howl’s Moving Castle. RP