This week we’re covering the Studio Ghibli film that was a spin-off to their earlier success, Whisper of the Heart, and features the return appearance of “The Baron” – a cat doll in a suit and top hat that becomes alive.
The Cat Returns was released in 2002; seven years after Whisper of the Heart came out. It was directed by Hiroyuki Morita, and so far this has been the only anime film he has directed. Also, at 75 minutes this is currently the shortest of all the Studio Ghibli feature films to be released.
The film opens with a schoolgirl called Haru Yoshioka, who has had a fondness for cats ever since she was young. She even believed that she could speak to them. On her way home from school, she spots a cat crossing the road, carrying a package in its mouth. A lorry nearly runs the cat over but Haru saves him by using her friend’s lacrosse stick. Haru is then shocked to see the cat she has just rescued brushing himself down with his front paws, standing upright on his back paws, and thanking her in the human tongue before leaving.
That night a delegation from the “Kingdom of Cats” meets Haru to thank her, especially as it turns out the cat she saved was the prince of the kingdom, Lune. The kingdom in return gives her gifts but these backfire. Her friend is swamped with lacrosse sticks, bulrush weeds (cattails in American English) grow in her garden, and her school looker is full of packages containing mice. But worse is to come when she is told she is to marry Prince Lune. She tries to object but fails.
The next day a mysterious voice tells Haru to find a big fat white cat called Muta, which she does and who takes her the “Cat Bureau”. The head of the Bureau is The Baron, who promises to help Haru out of her mess, but Haru is kidnapped and taken to the kingdom anyway. The Baron and the rest of the Bureau must come up with a way of returning Haru back to the human world before dawn, otherwise not only will she be forced to marry, but she will become a cat too.
Given how much Studio Ghibli is compared to Disney, I would argue that The Cat Returns is one of the most Disney-like of all the Ghibli films. You have all the magical, fairy tale elements, a central character who some might consider to be princess-like (she certainly is made to wear a princess costume, but as for whether she does become a princess you’ll have to watch the film), and The Baron makes for a typically dashing hero, with Muta a jolly sidekick.
This is a U-rated film, but like many Ghibli productions there things which you might be surprised that they get away with. For example, there is a scene in the Kingdom of Cats where the king is trying to provide entertainment for a miserable Haru. One of the acts is a knife-thrower, who throws knives at a female cat. The knives manage to cut the female cat’s top clothes off, who then covers her chest with her paws and runs off. Now if that female cat was a female human, she would be covering her breasts and this would probably have pushed the film to at least a PG-rating, but because the cat has no breasts you can get away with it.
Ignoring suddenly topless breast-less cats however, The Cat Returns is short yet funny flight of fantasy that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
The Cat Returns is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Studio Canal.