by HELEN GEIB
High-schooler Haru is having a very bad day the day it all begins. First she oversleeps and misses out on a yummy breakfast, then she loses a shoe as she’s running to beat the bell, and then her teacher busts her as she’s trying to sneak in late to class and everyone laughs at her, even the boy she likes. Adding insult to injury, she’s beaned by a ball during PE. On the way home, she courageously runs across the street in the teeth of oncoming traffic to save a cat from being hit by a truck, giving herself another knock on the head when she lands hard on the sidewalk.
However, what seemed at first glance like just another stroke of bad luck proves to be the start of a fantastical (mis)adventure.
The cat Haru saved brushes himself off, stands erect on his hind legs, makes a formal bow, and graciously thanks Haru for her timely intervention. This remarkable cat is the crown prince of the Cat Kingdom. His father the king (purple-furred and crowned by a cat’s eye pendant) is so grateful, and so taken with Haru, that he declares his intention to have her brought to the Cat Kingdom where she will marry his son.
Faced with this bizarre predicament, Haru turns for aid to the Cat Bureau operated by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The Baron is a cat figurine, endowed with a soul by the loving craftsmanship of his artisan creator, who comes to life when he’s needed. With the aid of a real, fat cat (real and really fat) named Muta and a crow named Toto (a statue of the same type as the proprietor of the Cat Bureau), the Baron journeys with Haru to the Cat Kingdom where he will help her discover she possesses the strength to rescue herself. Naturally he does it in style. The Baron does everything in style.
The “returns” in the title of the Japanese animated feature The Cat Returns is a reference to the film’s status as a semi-sequel to 1995’s Whisper of the Heart, a coming-of-age drama about an aspiring writer whose fantasy story is animated as story-within-a-story sequences starring the Baron. The Baron was brought back to the screen by popular demand, but whereas in his first film role he was a fictional character within the context of the story, in the fantasy world of The Cat Returns he is a character as real as human heroine Haru. Likewise the Cat Kingdom and the Cat Bureau are as real as Haru’s house and school.
Although The Cat Returns is a film by Hayao Miyazaki’s production company Studio Ghibli, it is not a Miyazaki film. True, there are obvious superficial similarities to Miyazaki’s films: the young, strong female protagonist; the narrative arc of her maturation and self-empowerment; glorious sequences of flight (courtesy of Toto).
But The Cat Returns, which was directed by Hiroyuki Morita from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, is very different in substance and tone. For one thing, the story never gets heavy. The fate of the world is not at stake, and neither the climax nor its build-up is emotionally wrenching. For another thing, this movie is really, really funny.
There are laugh out loud moments all throughout The Cat Returns. The film is chock-full of delightfully comical sequences, with humor grounded in the animation, characters, and situations. A good example is the splendid sequence of misadventures that befall Haru after she saves the cat prince. The Cat Kingdom presents her with a series of gifts of a kind guaranteed to please – to please a cat, that is. She awakens to a yard filled with cattails, is chased from her house to school by an ever-increasing number of cats eager to partake of the catnip secreted in her pockets, and arrives at school to find her shoe locker brimming with gift boxes holding mice (at least that gives the pursuing cats something else to chase!). When the cat king’s messenger next appears before the exasperated Haru, he is inordinately pleased with the caliber of their gifts.