Original title: Neko no ongaeshi
D: Hiroyuki Morita / 75m
Cast: Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Aki Maeda, Takayuki Yamada, Hitomi Satô, Kenta Satoi, Mari Hamada, Tetsu Watanabe, Yôsuke Saitô, Kumiko Okae, Tetsurô Tanba
Haru (Ikewaki) is a young girl who always seems to be running to catch up in her life. While on her way home from school one day, she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. Unseen by anyone else, the cat dusts itself down and thanks her for saving his life; afterwards Haru thinks she’s going mad. When she mentions the incident to her mother (Okae), her mother recalls an occasion when Haru was much younger and she spoke to a kitten. Somewhat reassured, Haru is still surprised to find a procession of cats appear in the night outside her home. Led by the Cat King (Tanba) of Cat Kingdom, he bestows on her his thanks for saving his son, Prince Lune (Yamada), and promises to bestow on her a range of gifts.
The gifts begin appearing the next morning, with cat tail plants overtaking the garden, Haru being chased to school by a large band of cats, and her locker containing boxes of live mice. Later, Haru is lamenting the way things are going when she sees Natoru (Hamada), the Cat King’s assistant. When she complains about the gifts, he offers her a trip to Cat Kingdom and tells her of the most important gift of all: her marriage to Prince Lune. Haru panics at the idea, and while she wonders what she can do, she hears a voice tell her to find the big white cat at the crossroads.
The cat, Muta (Watanabe), takes her to a strange part of town where the buildings are all much smaller than usual and where she is introduced to Humbert von Gikkingen (Hakamada), aka the Baron. Haru tells the Baron about her predicament, and he agrees to help her, aided by Muta and a crow called Toto (Saitô). Before they can however, there is a knock at the door and Haru is carried off by Natoru and several other cats. When Haru wakes she finds herself in the Cat Kingdom; she also finds she’s shrunk to the size of a cat, and is half-human, half-cat. With preparations for the wedding going ahead, Haru appears to be trapped in the Cat Kingdom with no way out and no prospect of being rescued.
Regarded as a minor entry in the Studio Ghibli canon, The Cat Returns is a light, good-hearted movie that tells a simple story in a simple, old-fashioned style, and is all the better for it. It may not have the depth of, say, Spirited Away (2001) or Grave of the Fireflies (1988), but Haru’s plight is tinged with clever humour and the movie embraces its premise with a delightful vigour. Haru herself is an appealing character, her teenage awkwardness imaginatively rendered, and given free expression in the opening twenty minutes.
Once the premise of talking cats is established, the movie piles on the charm with cheerful abandon, and while Haru’s adventures in the Cat Kingdom take on a more serious tone, there’s still plenty of imaginative whimsy on display (Haru’s half-cat look is a prime example). The characters are – as expected – carefully designed, with the Baron’s urbane Victorian apparel proving a winner. Likewise, the Cat King is a terrific creation, his heavy-lidded stare and overfed frame highlighting the dissolute nature of his life and position.
This being a Studio Ghibli production the animation is naturally of a very high standard, particularly with regard to the backgrounds, which are so full of detail that it’s hard to take in all at once. There’s also a richness in their colour schemes that makes a lot of these background shots pop off the screen, so bright and vivid are they. Haru and the Baron et al. fit in well against these backdrops, but where the main characters look like they belong, the same can’t be said for the cats who are, in effect, bit players and extras. The level of detail brought to the main characters is absent here, with large groups of cats in certain scenes looking more like pre-viz animation than the finished product. And it’s unfortunate, but the Baron’s mouth is often represented by an awkwardly drawn line, making him look unnecessarily thin-lipped and/or petulant.
But these are minor problems in a movie that entertains throughout and whose sole purpose is to provide seventy-five minutes’ worth of fun, with no hidden meanings, and no dramatic subtext beyond the notion that almost being made to marry a cat will lead to a reassessment of one’s outlook on Life (Haru is a more focused individual come the movie’s end). As fluffy as one of the clouds seen floating in the sky in more than one scene, The Cat Returns is directed with flair and a good sense of the absurd nature of the story by Morita (whose only directorial credit this is, so far), and the Japanese voice cast all prove perfect matches for their characters, with special mention going to Ikewaki and Watanabe. There’s also a wonderfully playful score courtesy of Yuji Nomi that is a character all by itself.
Rating: 7/10 – as adaptations of comic books go – this one from Aoi Hiragi’s Neko no Danshaku, Baron – The Cat Returns is a joyous diversion that boasts some unsurprisingly beautiful animation and an inventive storyline; a feelgood movie in every way, this can, and should be, enjoyed by children and adults alike.