Japanese Cinema Blogathon: The Cat Returns (2002)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: Shy and awkward Haru Yoshioka feels like she never does anything right. She can never wake up in time for school and is always tripping over things. When Haru performs a good deed by saving a cat from getting hit by a truck, the animal responds by thankingher and promising to repay her kindness! Soon Haru is getting all kinds of gifts from the Kingdom of Cats, including cattails in her garden (which make her sneeze) and live mice in her locker (which make her squeamish)! Haru regrets helping the cat, because now his brethren won’t leave her alone. But things really turn serious when the Cat King decides to bestow upon Haru what he views to be the ultimate gift: the hand of his son, the prince, in marriage! Desperate to avoid being taken to the Cat Kingdom and turned into a cat forever, Haru seeks the help of the Baron, a dapper kitty in a formal suit, along with his fat and grumpy friend Muta and a crow named Toto. But before her new friends can stop them, representatives of the Cat Kingdom come and steal Haru away in the night. Can Haru find her way out of the Kingdom before she’s completely and permanently transformed?

This is an official entry in the week-long Japanese Cinema Blogathon for disaster relief, co-hosted by CinemaFanatic and Japan Cinema. As we all know, Japan was struck with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, resulting in devastating tsunamis and widespread destruction. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to the represented charity of your choice to aid Japanese disaster victims, and be sure to click the banner at left to view the other contributions to the blogathon.

The fifth and final installment in my week-long tribute to Studio Ghibli started off as a twenty-minute short about cats commissioned by a Japanese theme park. Banking on the popularity of the two felines from 1995’s Whisper of the Heart – Muta/Moon, the fat train-riding cat, and Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, the well-dressed figurine in the antique shop which provided inspiration for the main character’s novel – Hayao Miyazaki wanted to bring both characters back in anthropomorphic form for the short. He hired Aoi Hiiragi, who had written the manga on which Whisper was based, to pen the manga equivalent of the new film. However, when the theme park pulled out of the deal, Miyazaki instead decided to keep the existing material and expand the film as a training exercise for future Ghibli directors. Hiroyuki Morita, who had done previous animation work for the studio on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), was handed the task of directing based on the 525 pages of storyboards he created based on Hiiragi’s manga.

If I were president I’d staff my entire Secret Service with these kitties. I’d make it a LAW.

While The Cat Returns brings back two characters from Whisper of the Heart and calls them by the same names, it’s not exactly a sequel, as the story seems to take place in a different sphere and the characters have different personalities (presumably – neither was gifted with the power of speech in Whisper so it’s hard to say what personalities, if any, they had). If you’ll remember back to the plot of Whisper, the main character wrote a novel starring the Baron, so the most logical connection to make is that The Cat Returns is – or takes place in the same world as – the story Shizuku writes in Whisper. Or Miyazaki just had a fondness for kitties and wanted to use them again; point is, you’re not meant to think too hard about the connection, as it’s ultimately not important to either story.

Like Miyazaki, I’m a pretty big fan of kitties, and the cats in this film do not disappoint. My favorite part of this movie is the way the cats are depicted, and the wide variety of cats with markings specialized to their duties. There are Secret Service cats in little tuxedos, giggling handmaiden cats, even military camo cats with green fur. I love the realistic behavior of the cats in the real world versus their fantastical – but still unmistakably feline – personalities in the Cat Kingdom. Plus the familiar story of a damsel stolen away by an evil king to be forced into an arranged marriage with an unknown prince is given a unique and amusing twist. As usual, Ghibli provides us with a strong female heroine who will accept help when she needs it but is by no means helpless. And like Whisper, our heroine is an awkward girl in her early teens with doubts about who she is, who ultimately learns to trust herself and be proud of her individuality. These heroic female leads are one of the things that keep me going back to Ghibli films every time, and one of the many reasons why they make such positive films for families to enjoy together.

Haru’s cat-tastrophe. (Yeah, well, you try writing five movie reviews in five days and see how clever you feel.)

But to me ultimately The Cat Returns feels like it’s missing that signature Studio Ghibli flair and attention to detail. The world-building in the Cat Kingdom feels half-baked and not particularly enthralling. The connection of the Baron – who isn’t a real cat, but a figurine, and enigmatically describes himself as “someone’s creation,” who therefore has a soul, because all creations do – to the rest of the cats isn’t fully explained, and left me feeling like his role was a little horned-in. Plus the overall moral message we are supposed to get from Haru’s story didn’t feel strong to me, like it was just a given that there was a moral to this story so why waste time developing it. Overall the film feels somewhat half-finished, almost like a first draft. It makes sense in both a canonical and realistic way; if this is supposed to be Shizuku’s first novel from Whisper of the Heart, it is a rough draft; likewise if this was meant to be a training exercise for director Morita, it’s expected to be imperfect. While it’s a very cute film and one I enjoy, I can’t help feeling that it’s not quite up to par with Ghibli’s other offerings. Of course, being “up to par” with Hayao Miyazaki is quite a tall order, and there’s nothing wrong with taking time to find your footing. While Hiroyuki Morita has not directed anything since The Cat Returns, I believe he shows a lot of potential, and I hope to see him collaborate with Miyazaki again in the future.

The Cat Returns (2002) – 3/5 stars

Don’t forget to CLICK HERE to make your donation! Need more incentive? Molly (of Pikachu Rope fame) is giving away FREE animal paintings in exchange for a minimum donation of ¥1000 (about $13) to ARK, a Japanese animal rescue organization located outside of the affected region but preparing to take in pets left homeless, injured and traumatized by the disaster. Please visit her blog for more information.


  1. Wow. I admire your commitment to write so many reviews so quickly! One review a week is enough for me!

    I love Studio Ghibli, yet I have not yet seen this film…I need to fix that………….

    By the way, hi! I’m Nathanael Hood from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear! I love your blog! I would love to know what you think of mine!

    • In all honestly, I did want to go above and beyond to support this blogathon, but I also just wanted to test myself and see if I could churn out so many reviews so quickly. I’ve been struggling with my writing lately, so I figured I’d go all or nothing for a good cause.

      Hi, Nathanael! I think we’ve spoken before, and I do subscribe to your blog via RSS. I am just coming back from a long hiatus from blogging, so it’s taking me awhile to get back up to speed with reading and commenting. My sincere apologies if I’ve been somewhat lax in the recent weeks, but I promise I’m getting there! I believe the last time we talked we were discussing Senegalese film and in particular the works of Ousmane Sembene; I want you to know that I’ve been trying to craft a review of Djibril Diop Mambety’s La Petite Vendeuse de Soleilwhich should be up shortly. I’ll let you know when it’s published, and then I’d love to hear what you think. Not sure you’ve seen it yet, as you did mention how hard it is to find Mambety’s works, but as you’ll probably be one of the ONLY people who even knows what I’m talking about, I’d still like to hear your feedback. :)

  2. I really enjoyed your series of Studio Ghibli reviews for the blogathon. I hope you’ll write more along this vein in the future. I’m going to have a Future Boy Conan blogathon in April. How about joining along? If you need help getting the fansub, just let me know and I’ll be more than happy to help.

    I always enjoyed The Cat Returns, but it always felt like a minor Ghibli film. It’s interesting that, in Japan, the feature played on a double bill with the 30min-long Ghiblies Episode 2, which was far more adventurous and exciting. It’s a shame that Disney didn’t include that film when they brought Cat Returns to the States on DVD. Taken together, you have a very solid picture of the Ghibli studio stretching its wings and trying to define itself apart from Miyazaki or Takahata. And that’s something the studio continues to struggle with as it moves into the next generation.

    • Thanks for your comment, Daniel! I feel a bit guilty judging all these films against the bigger Ghibli films that I didn’t review (many of which would’ve gotten five stars easily), but I did want to examine some of the more second-tier films that aren’t quite as well known stateside. Plus my girlfriend owns so many Ghibli films that I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to watch, and this project was a chance to rectify that. :)

      Thanks also for letting me know about the Future Boy Conan blogathon. I’ve thought about it, and while I really appreciate the invitation, sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to participate; the primary focus of this blog is supposed to be films made prior to 1970, and I’ve already strayed quite far out of my niche in reviewing Ghibli films this week. I’m afraid a month-long event based on a television series would be just too far out of my field of focus. I feel terrible for saying no, but hopefully you understand. I will, however, subscribe to your wonderful blog so that I can at least read the blogathon and comment. I’ve noticed you’ve put the link to the fansub in your downloads — thanks for that! That way I’ll be able to follow along, because even my girlfriend — who’s the real Ghibli fanatic and provided me with all the DVDs of the films I reviewed this week — doesn’t have Future Boy Conan!

  3. I like how it’s a continuation of Whisper of the Heart but not totally. Lateral-sequels doesn’t always work but I enjoy this attempt at a cross story continuity. Again great write-up Caroline!

    Yeah old stand bys in the Ghibli films abound here; strong willed girl (this time though the lead characters’ name didn’t begin with an “S”), cats, out of her element plot, etc. I’m quite happy with Morita’s work even if this doesn’t have half the quality and heart of Whisper.

    I see exactly what you mean about this being a possible training exercise for Morita. By that token Tales from Earthsea, while similarly less than perfect (and rather dull), was a proving ground for him (and Goro with Earthsea) to try taking the reigns of a much larger features in the future. Fingers crossed:)

    • Although I thought the animation quality in this film wasn’t up to par with other Ghibli movies (which, again, doesn’t mean it’s bad, just means it’s not completely flawless like Miyazaki’s work), I thought it showed a lot of promise, so I was surprised to see that Morita had not (yet?) been invited back to direct another feature for the studio. And I was even more surprised to see that Goro is already directing another one, as I would imagine that Earthsea was a pretty rough and not-altogether-pleasant experience for him. Hopefully the result will be more successful than Earthsea, which is the only Ghibli film I’ve watched where I never had the desire to watch it again. :)

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