I’ve been slowly but surely trying to work through the backlog of books I have owned for years but not read. One particular harbinger of shame in this endeavor was the graphic novel on which the Studio Ghibli movie The Cat Returns was based, since I knew the single-volume manga with its self-contained story would only actually take me half an hour or so to read. Nevertheless, I only finally read it this weekend, even though I’m pretty sure I bought it when Borders was still a thing.
I liked but didn’t love The Cat Returns movie; for me, it’s one of Ghibli’s more forgettable options. Looking back, I’m not sure what about the film, save maybe a passing furry-ish attraction to the Baron character, led me to buy the source manga. And now, having at long last read it, I’m left questioning why this almost-too-simple story got a film adaptation at all.
First and foremost, I have to address a point of order: I have no idea how to refer to this book. The cover says BARON: The Cat Returns, and the copyright page repeats that in all caps, but the title page inside the book just says The Cat Returns. For clarity’s sake I’m just going to refer to it as the latter; I’m not sure why they include the word Baron at all, or for that matter, what the rest of the title refers to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself there. Let’s start with a brief plot recap, for those unfamiliar with the story. Average schoolgirl Haru rescues a cat from being hit by a car on her way home from school, and is later approached by a wild-looking old cat who claims to be the King of Cats. It turns out the cat she rescued was his son, and he wants to lavish her with gifts to thank her; unfortunately, they’re all gifts a cat, not a human, would care for, and the final “gift” is a betrothal to the son she saved.
Reeling from the revelation that cats are sentient and can talk but determined to find a way out of her sudden predicament, she follows some mysterious advice and befriends a fat cat named Muta and a magical cat doll who goes by “the Baron”. They offer to help her out of her jam, but before they can do more than that Haru is kidnapped by cats from the Cat Kingdom. There, she is slowly turned into a cat to be more suitable as a bride for her feline betrothed, and she must, with Muta and the Baron’s help, escape before she gets stuck like that. Finally, the prince, who was unaware of these goings-on, shows up and berates his father for his shenanigans. Haru is able to escape Catland and goes back to her everyday life, significantly more content with her lot in life than she was before her feline adventures began.
Okay, so, back to my first point: why is it called The Cat Returns? The only cat who goes back to the Kingdom of Cats is Muta, who was previously banished for belligerently eating all of the fish in their lake. But Muta is a side character at best whose role is mainly comic relief. There’s no significance to his backstory or character that should merit him the titular role. Does it refer to the Prince returning at the end? It seems odd to say it refers to the Baron, as he 1) only appears to Haru once, and 2) has never been to the Cat Kingdom before. There’s no returning about it.
I don’t know if it makes more sense if you’ve seen Whispers of the Heart, another Ghibli movie related to this one, but there’s no reference to that story in the manga, so I shouldn’t be expected to understand something based on a different story I wasn’t told I had to be familiar with. Furthermore, if I recall correctly, The Cat Returns is supposed to be a story written by a character in Whispers of the Heart, which means it should be able to stand alone; knowing Whispers of the Heart should enrich the story, but not knowing it shouldn’t detract from it.
On a less pedantic note, the manga suffers somewhat from its brevity. Very little is explained in enough detail to make it clear how and why the story is progressing from one point to the next. Scenes that were in the movie, such as the scene where Haru and the Baron ballroom dance together, don’t exist in the manga, and their lack makes some character choices confusing. That particular dancing scene, for example: there’s a pretty dedicated storytelling trope where a first formal dance between a male and a female character is a prelude to falling in love. It codes Haru’s awe for the Baron as crush-like, and we’re justified in picking up on this coding later in the movie when she’s overwhelmed at being princess-carried by him. In the manga, we don’t get the former dancing scene, but we still get the latter scene. For a girl who is desperate to escape her feline fate to suddenly, and out of nowhere, blush and sigh that it might be worth it to stay a cat if she got to be with the Baron, seems odd at best.
On the plus side for the manga, however, it doesn’t lean as much on fat-centric/fatphobic jokes regarding Muta as the movie does. That doesn’t mean they’re not there; they’re just not as prevalent. And while Haru does still get a haircut (the short-lock-edness of Miyazaki’s heroines frustrated Ace throughout her and Rin’s Ghibli Month review series; she saw it as reinforcement of the idea that empowered = tomboyish), in the manga it’s not something she wants or seeks out; rather, it’s cut against her will by her cat ladies-in-waiting, who think it looks weird for someone to have longer fur on one part of her head. That said, I feel weird about using a nonconsensual haircut as proof of the manga’s superiority to the adaptation.
In the end, I’m not sure what about this manga would inspire the creation of a feature film by a top-tier animation studio. Then again, I guess Disney’s still making Cars movies, and Laika’s last and upcoming movies have fielded critiques of transphobia and whitewashing respectively, so acclaim isn’t always proof of quality producer decision-making. However, despite the questionability of the movie even existing, the movie actually tells the story more satisfyingly and with more plot and character development than the manga. Despite being a cat person, a Ghibli fan, and a proponent of books over their film adaptations, this is one where I’m forced to say, if given the choice, pick the movie over the book—and if given the option of neither, you’re not really missing much.