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In the first installment of Ghibli Bits–the retrospective on the Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata (you can find those at Miyazaki Masterclass and Takahata Textbook)–we talked about a movie called Whisper of the Heart, which I said felt like a mix of the two studio founders’ style. It was directed by a longtime Studio Ghibli animation head who was being groomed to take over, but tragically he died young of being overworked. It would take seven years before another would attempt to direct for the company and when they did…it got pretty weird.

The Cat Returns came out in 2002 and is a continuation of sorts of Whisper of the Heart, but only sort of. Whisper was based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi and he also wrote the manga Baron, Neko no Danshaku which became The Cat Returns. But whereas the Baron is just a statue of a cat in a tuxedo that inspires the lead character Shizuku to follow her dreams and write a fantasy story in Whisper, the Baron is a for-real tiny anthropomorphic cat who helps a girl brought into a magical world of talking and fighting cats in The Cat Returns. I like to think the movie’s a meta narrative actually written by Shizuku. Because otherwise, it doesn’t quite work for me.


The movie was directed by Hiroyuki Morita, who has an impressive resume in animating, working on the Ghibli films Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and (next week’s focus) Tales from Earthsea, as well as other anime powerhouse films Akira, Perfect Blue, and Ghost in the Shell 2. This is the one and only film he directed to date and its style is certainly much looser, less rigidly Ghibli-looking than Whisper or any Miyazaki movie. It feels slightly out of step with the studio’s output at large.


The story follows Haru, a schoolgirl, who has a suppressed ability to talk to cats. I mean, sure. One day she notices a strange grey cat walking through the city with a present in his mouth and she follows it, eventually saving the poor thing from getting run over by a truck. To her surprise, the cat stands up on his hind legs and verbally thanks her for saving his live. He, it turns out, is Prince Lune of the cat kingdom. She is later visited by hundreds of cats, including the fat and creepy king of the cats, who offers Haru the hand of Prince Lune in marriage. Her confusing response is taken as a yes and the cats promise to return to take her to the Cat Kingdom soon.


Now, naturally, Haru doesn’t want to leave the human world, or marry a cat, and so a voice tells her to visit the secret Cat Bureau and to speak to a large white cat named Muta who then takes her to see the Baron, a cat statue in a top hat and tails given life by his creator. Yes, it’s the same Baron and Muta from Whisper of the Heart. They are joined by Toto, a wooden raven brought to life by similar magic, and while they devise a plan to save Haru, a cat army arrives and takes Haru and Muta to see the king. While in the Cat Kingdom, Haru begins to transform into a cat. The longer she stays, the more cat-like she will be. It’s up to the Baron and Toto to rescue Haru, and remind her of her true inner self so that she can return to the land of the humans before time runs out.


Now I should hasten to add before continuing that there is nothing wrong with The Cat Returns, other than just being generally creepy re: a little girl being forced to marry a cat. It’s a perfectly funny movie with some decent adventure and fine characters. The animation, while certainly very different than the usual Ghibli style, is not bad at all, though slightly less iconic than other films by the company. I think what kills it for me is that it doesn’t have that sense of childlike awe and wonder, that blending of grown-up themes with kiddish exuberance, and the notion of children shouldering the weight of the world. On the surface it has those things, but in actuality it doesn’t at all.


The Cat Returns is a bit of a forgotten entry in the Ghibli canon; in addition to the reasons I listed above, and the fact that it was only 75 minutes long–feeling much more like a direct-to-DVD movie than a theatrical feature–it also had the bad luck of being released exactly one year after Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but blew the roof off the animation industry, winning an Oscar for best animated feature, and giving Studio Ghibli its biggest global audience ever. To go from that to another story of a little girl taken to a mystical world where she’s forced to change identities and be helped by magical beings lessened the impact The Cat Returns might have had.


It would take a further four years for a new Ghibli movie to come out that was directed by someone besides Miyazaki–actually, I need to be more specific. Four years before a movie was directed by someone besides Hayao Miyazaki. His son Goro, who all but grew up in animation studios, would take the helm of the 2006 Ghibli movie, Tales from Earthsea, based on a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. While it certainly hews much closer to the traditional Ghibli visual style, it was met with very poor critical reception. It currently has a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. But is it really that bad?

We’ll discuss Tales from Earthsea next time, but share your opinion on The Cat Returns in the comments below!

Images: Studio Ghibli

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits. Follow him on Twitter!

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