MadameAce: Hello, Ace here, and welcome to yet another installment of Ghibli Month. I have some bad news though. Rin is unfortunately not here for this review, so you’re stuck with just me today. I know; it makes me sad too.
Anyway, The Cat Returns centers on highschooler Haru, a shy girl with little no self-confidence. She’s a klutz who never wakes up on time, is always late for school, constantly trips over her own two feet, and is laughed at and picked on by the other students, including her best friend. Her life gets much harder when one day she saves a cat about to be run over by a truck—breaking her friend’s lacrosse stick in the process. While Haru is catching her breath on the side of the road, the cat in question stands up on his hind legs, brushes himself off, and calmly thanks Haru for saving him. It turns out that he is Prince Lune from the Cat Kingdom. Later that night, on entourage of cats make their way to Haru’s house. Among them is their king, who wants to thank Haru personally. The cats give Haru a piece of paper that has a list of all the marvelous cat gifts they want to bestow upon her for saving their prince. The cats have vowed to not stop until Haru is perfectly happy, regardless of her feelings on the matter.
The next morning, there are hundreds of lacrosse rods littering her friend’s balcony, and Haru’s yard has been overrun with cattails. On her way to school, she is bombarded by a bunch of cats that want the catnip that has somehow been placed upon her person, and her locker contains a couple dozen boxes with live mice. Needless to say, she’s not too pleased by these new changes in her life. When the cats discover her unhappiness, they vow to take her to their kingdom and marry her to Prince Lune. Despite her protests, they’re going to collect her for the journey that night. A disembodied voice tells Haru to find a fat white cat at some crossroads, and that he will lead her to the Cat Bureau where she can find help.
Haru finds Muta, a large white cat, who then takes her through a bunch of back alleys until he brings her to what appears to be a miniature town that’s a perfect size for cats. It’s there that Haru meets the Baron—the same Baron from Whisper of the Heart—and his crow friend Toto. The Baron says that he’ll help Haru with her predicament. Unfortunately, the other cats have found her and they kidnap her. Muta manages to tag along with Haru while the Baron and Toto try to follow them from the air. They don’t succeed in their goal and Haru and Muta end up in the Cat Kingdom, wherein Haru is shrunk down to the size of a cat and slowly begins turning into a cat herself. Whenever Haru stops believing in herself or forgets who she really is, more of her human side disappears as the cat side takes over. Unless she can get back to the human world before dawn, the process will never reverse itself.
Eventually, the Baron makes it to the Cat Kingdom to save her. With the help of the Baron, Muta, Prince Lune, and a cat named Yuki—the previous disembodied voice and the actual love of Prince Lune—Haru manages to escape the Cat Kingdom by climbing up a giant tower, the hallowed roof of which is a portal to the real world. Unfortunately, though the exit releases her from the cat world, it drops her off high in sky over the streets of Tokyo, and Haru, though cured of being a cat, starts falling to her impending doom. Muta and the Baron try to help her, but it is Toto who saves the day, by calling in all his crow friends to catch the falling trio.
In the end, Haru parts ways with her new friends, who tell her to come ask them for help anytime she needs it. Her unexpected journey has left her with a renewed sense of self confidence, and most importantly, now that she’s a female with a strong sense of purpose:
This is yet another coming-of-age story and it mirrors Whisper of the Heart in a lot of ways. This is because the main character of Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku, wrote The Cat Returns. I mentioned The Cat Returns during that review previously, and now that I’ve re-watched it, I still stand by what I said.
Haru’s main problem is that she doesn’t believe in herself, which is also Shizuku’s issue. Shizuku worries that she won’t get her story done in time, that it won’t be good enough, and that she’s a terrible writer. The message goes back to the geode. You have to put your all into a creation for it to come to life, and you have to polish and refine your talents within before they can become any good. This theme is entirely reflected in the Baron and Toto in The Cat Returns. While the Baron is a cat, he is not the same as the other cats, nor is Toto a real crow. They were both creations that someone made, and because their creators gave their all, the Baron and Toto both ended up with souls. Arguably, the same can be said for this movie as a whole. Shizuku gave her all into writing it, and now Studio Ghibli has brought it to life on the screen.
Though Whisper of the Heart took place in the real world with no fantastical elements, it still featured a lot of fantasy through Shizuku’s imagination. The Cat Returns, while it differs from some of the imaginings Shizuku gives us about her story, is a much more refined version of her work. This can be noted in a lot of ways: Muta makes an appearance, so does the Baron, some of the scenery is revisited, the main internal conflict of the protagonists are the same, and so is the underlying message. These two stories are completely tied to one another.
There is a difference in the tone, however. Whisper of the Heart is grounded in reality, and it features real world problems. It might be a story, but it’s completely applicable to real life, and that makes it all the more relevant. The Cat Returns, however, is not only fantasy, but it relies on a lot of fantastical elements to progress the plot. I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t offer a good story and that it isn’t relevant itself, but it uses, what I would call in any other film, cheap convenience to solve issues. It does, however, at least seem to be aware of this. The Cat Returns actually feels like a story written by a highschooler, in that there are a lot of issues and character traits that are presented but not fully developed. For example, the Baron and Toto are creations, statues, that a lot of effort went into. That’s all we ever learn about their history, and other than allowing them to be alive, that’s all the more the relevance creations with souls have to the plot. Who made them? It doesn’t matter. What’s the lore behind this? It’s just a means of furthering the connection between The Cat Returns and Whisper of the Heart.
Haru is also a character type that I would expect to find in a highschooler’s story. She’s a klutz who has self-esteem issues, just like so many other female protagonists in media. She’s endearingly clumsy, very polite and soft spoken, and really pretty. The reasons behind her lack of confidence are never explored nor explained, and she doesn’t have a lot of agency other than taking initiative and saving Prince Lune at the beginning of the film. The rest of the movie is a series of events that happen to her in order for her to react to them. While she at one point tells off the Cat King, she doesn’t do a lot for herself, and she needs to be rescued throughout the majority of the story—at one point, while escaping the Cat Kingdom, the Baron actually carries her bridal style. It’s not until the king realizes that Lune is in love with Yuki and decides to marry Haru himself that Haru actually does something. Haru is, for all intents and purposes, a clichéd character going through the motions in a typical coming of age story.
But here, I’d say it works. As I said earlier, The Cat Returns relies on cheap convenience to advance the plot. Just about everything in it can be attributed to the characters just happening to be in just the right place at just the right time, right down to Haru just so happening to come across the one intersection in the middle of Tokyo that Muta’s hanging out at. The Cat Returns utilizes this rather well, though. It knows that what’s happening is completely ridiculous, and it just goes with it. For instance, after Haru arrives at the castle and begins the process of turning into a cat, she naturally freaks out and runs off to find Muta in the dining room. Unfortunately, Muta—being a cliché for fat characters, meaning he’s motivated by food—has fallen into the world’s largest jelly bowl, and everyone mistakes him for drowning to death. Haru cries for him and refuses to leave what she considers his corpse. She won’t join the king at a banquet without him. The other cats just shrug their shoulders and pretty much go, “okay, then, his corpse can come with us.” And they proceed to roll the jelly bowl into the banquet hall.
Later, as Haru is escaping with the Baron and a very-much alive Muta, they have to go through a labyrinth. The king has cats in the labyrinth walking around with fake walls, preventing our trio from escaping. Unfortunately, they all line each other up to the exit and topple over like dominos, giving our characters an easy way out.
At many times, when conflict arises, I found myself wondering, not how the characters would resolve the issue, but what unexpected and hilarious gimmick would save the day instead. This is certainly a fun movie, and I’d definitely recommend it. However, if you want to get the full feel for this movie and why the story’s told the way it’s told, you’d also need to watch Whisper of the Heart. If you don’t want to, though, The Cat Returns can certainly stand by itself.