Cat Returns, The
A Ghibli film I hadn't heard of? I mean, sure, I took a break from watching anime but not enough of one to miss Spirited Away. So how did I miss the release of this? Oh well, something to be remedied at the first opportunity. I also invited some friends to watch it, which incidentally means I'm probably going to be overly picky, the weaknesses of a film always seem more obvious when you are responsible for having invited others to watch.
The story begins with us meeting Haru-chan, just an average young female student. She's slept in, she's missed breakfast and she's running late for school. In fact it seems that Haru is in general a little bit un-focused, not that there's anything terribly unusual about that. All sorts of little details of life, small uncertainties and perhaps the occasional klutzy error keeping her off balance. But all in all just a totally typical young Japanese girl.
A totally typical young girl in a Ghibli film. Which means that "typical" is not something that can be expected to last. And sure enough it is not long before a surprising act of bravery and courage earns Haru the thanks of a small grey cat. A small grey cat that is very far from the ordinary, and who's even more extraordinary family is determined to pay back her act of kindness. She's found an opening into a very strange new vision of the familiar world... now all she has to do is escape it!
I hope I managed to escape putting any significant spoilers in that synopsis, and I'll try to continue to avoid giving any away. Because after all this is a Ghibli film, and that means that if you're into anime it's almost certainly going to be worth giving this one a try and experiencing it for yourself.
It does help a lot if you like cats though, because they are a sizeable component of the story. There's also a couple of characters from a previous Ghibli movie making a re-appearance as the dashing dramatic, and romantic, lead in the show that unfolds. As for all Ghibli movies the character work, and the nice and natural flow of the script, is well done. It's easy to become attached to some of the characters and to feel that there is depth to them even if the script doesn't always allow us the time to fully explore that depth.
The characters are not the focus though. Nor, really, is action. The focus on this one is whimsical fantasy with a gentle shoujo bent to it. It's the familiar tactic of taking the normal and mundane world, filled with normal and mundane concerns, and adding a gateway to a fantasy world. A fantasy world that is itself filled out with full detail, so that it has both character and characters, dangers and wonders. A world which even seems deep enough to have it's own history. And the character we follow has to deal with being on the point of intersection between these two disjoint worlds. Which generally tends to be an enjoyable and entertaining ride, although frequently more for us than her.
So, is it good? Well, as I said in the introduction I'm probably going to be overly critical because I had invited others to watch it. And I must admit that while I still get the magic that Ghibli is capable of, and explore an unusual and interesting world, it was not without some weaknesses. The first is that the pacing is in general slow and even, if I may be so bold, a little erratic. And while there is action it didn't quite seem to manage the epic qualities some will associate with Ghibli. I can certainly see why it had a very quiet presence in the Western markets, this strangely patient and fantasy in the small production might ask to much of general western Audiences.
If you're an anime fan, and weren't expecting another action blockbuster like Mononoke Hime, then you should still enjoy it. While I do miss Miyazaki's almost spiritual depth there's still more than enough here to be experienced. And the world, while without the darkness that gave depth to Spirited away, and a little more basic of origin, is an interesting place to explore, full of characters with their own personalities. It even manages some dashing swashbuckling action at it's finale which is great fun to watch.
The production is, as can be expected, very solid. Some lovely environmental shots, an artistic eye for the small details that make the world real, and the animation skill to make it come to life. The female lead, unlike the classic Miyazaki Heroine, is somewhat plain looking and almost has over expressive eyes but she's certainly likeable. On the positive side she's not required to be as "cool" and as such has some wonderful physical sequences that are great to watch. The animation of the cats that are involved in the story is also well managed. Color is superb and movement is smooth, and theres even the traditional Ghibli aerial sequence which is great. Some of the effects where clearly a challenge to make work in a visual sense, but they manage it. Voices and music are, as is to be expected, excellent.