The Cat Returns (2002)

Directed by Hiroyuki Morita
Written by Reiko Toshida

Thus far it seems as though the Studio Ghibli entries not directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata have not measured up to the output of the masters. The last such entry was Whisper of the Heart, which, while not without it’s charm, seem to lack a fantastic world or connection between story and character that typically elevates the Studio Ghibli works. How peculiar, then, that a concept from that film should be used as the first sequel of sorts in Ghibli history. The Cat Returns is not a true sequel in the sense of the word, but any fan of the production studio would recognize that the story being told in The Cat Returns is very much a spiritual sister to that of Whisper of the Heart, utilizing an important character and story line from the first film to further develop him and his story into the wonderful fairy tale world found in The Cat Returns.

On one sunny afternoon, Japanese schoolgirl Haru makes a brave rescue of a cat in the middle of a busy road, scooping him up with her lacrosse stick and saving his life. When she saved the cats life, however, she did not know what she was getting herself into, as the cat was Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. That night, the King of the Cat Kingdom visits Haru to thank her personally, proclaiming a multitude of gifts will be bestowed upon her. But when the sun rises the next day, Haru is treated to a very strange assortment of “gifts” better suited for cats. Haru even unknowingly agrees to marry the prince. In order to get out of the conundrum she has found herself, Haru seeks the help of the Cat Bureau, headed by the Baron, who we’ve seen before in Whisper of the Heart. The Baron helps Haru stave off the greedy king and as Haru helps Lune find his true love in this cat infused fairy tale.

Despite my mixed reception of Whisper of the Heart, I was actually quite pleased to see the story line of the Baron brought back to life, as his mysterious aura was one of the more intriguing things at play in Whisper, and an element I really wanted to see much more of. That is exactly what The Cat Returns is, a Baron adventure. However, the story is not his, it’s Haru’s. Haru is a strong, interesting character with traits not that dissimilar from Shizuku, the heroine of Whisper of the Heart. Like Shizuku, Haru is a strong female lead with ambitions, while being slightly shy about boys and needing just a little push to go on a great adventure. For Shizuku, this meant writing her stories of the Baron, and for Haru, this means being much more confident in who she is and what she wants. This message, like the story itself, feels much more in line with the Disney princess stories from America.

For the most part, Ghibli films have had a distinct Eastern flair to them, bringing in stories about spirits, the supernatural, Eastern thought and of course Miyazaki’s great imaginary worlds with stories rooted in myth and fantasy stories from Japan. With The Cat Returns, the story is much more of a European style fairy tale, one which just so happens to take place in the world of cats. The cats aside, this fairy tale story structure I think makes the film much more accessible right up front, as compared to many of the other Ghibli films. However, this does not also mean that it’s necessarily better. Haru slides into the clutches of an evil king who wants her to wed his son, the prince, but the prince has eyes on another, slightly more lowly bride. The fairy tale is done well, which makes it an entertaining film, but at the same time I kind of missed the new strangeness each Ghibli film had brought before.

The spin on cats definitely favors the strange, especially for someone who is much more a dog person. But in all honesty, the cats, at this point in the marathon, seen a rather tame strangeness. I can imagine entering the Ghibli world with this film and being taken back by the story taking place in the world of cats, but having seen everything else Ghibli has cooked up to this point, the cats really seem like something standard Disney might do in their movies. In the end, The Cat Returns is an enjoyable fairy tale movie which uses tropes we’ve seen many times before in these worlds of princes and princesses. It doesn’t bring a whole awful lot new to the table, but it brings it in a very entertaining and competent manner, making it one of the lesser Ghibli films to this point, but reaching the greatness of Spirited Away, Totoro, or  Only Yesterday doesn’t mean it’s bad. The Cat Returns is in fact quite good.

*** – Good

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