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The Cat Returns – Felines run amok in anime-land

[Originally pubished April 9, 2006]

At a friend’s suggestion I got The Cat Returns (Neko no ongaeshi, 2002) from Netflix and watched it last night. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita and released by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, this 75 minute anime-style adventure is rated G and qualifies as amusing entertainment but not as anything stellar, at least in my opinion.

I will be honest here, I’m simply not a fan of anime. While I really enjoy full motion animated features and even short cartoons, the abbreviated style of Japanese animation leaves me cold. This is not to say that the artwork itself is bad, because it isn’t. I appreciate the cultural elements and background of Japanese art, and some of the drawing in both anime films and printed manga is of the highest quality. But I am very sensitive to the difference between the full motion animated films of Disney or Dreamworks and the typical short cuts of anime productions.

The story line of The Cat Returns is good at the beginning, but I felt it became rather disjointed before the end. As usually happens when I try to watch anime, I felt as if the writers and artists started by thinking up cute gags and scenes that they wanted to do, and only then tried to put them together into a story. The resulting product has some fun moments but just doesn’t hang together as a story.

The main character, Haru, is a Japanese teenager who seems just a little too American to me. (Maybe teenage girls are the same all over the world and I just don’t realize it.) Awkward, distracted by crushes on unattainable people, dissatisfied with her life, she has a talent she doesn’t quite recognize: the ability to speak to cats and understand them. After she risks her own life to keep a cat from being hit by a truck, the cat thanks her and promises that she will be repaid. The reward first arrives in the form of a Japanese procession of rather anthropomorphic cats, including their emperor (voiced in English by Tim Curry) who promises many rewards. The rewards start arriving the next day in the form of catnip, gifts of live mice, and other things that might well appeal to a feline but aren’t exactly thrilling to Haru. When she expresses her displeasure, the reward is upped to include adoption into the Cat Realm and marriage to the emperor’s son, who just happens to be the cat Haru saved from death. 

That’s hardly what Haru would like either, she realizes, and a mysterious voice from a drain pipe tells her to look for the Cat Bureau to obtain help. She follows the directions to find a large (fat, actually) white cat “at the crossroads” and starts off the downhill decline of the plot by sitting on him as she mistakes him for a cushion. He nonetheless leads her on a difficult route over rooftops and railings to the Cat Bureau, where she asks for help. The Bureau and the Cat Realm are at odds for reasons never made clear, and the rest of the film consists of various escapades in the style of The Man from Uncle as the Bureau’s Baron (voiced in English by Cary Elwes) tries to extricate Haru from the enchantments of the Cat emperor and his court.

I’m a long time fantasy fan and obviously love a furry tale as much as anyone, but this one was just too stilted and disjointed for my imagination. The cats are cleverly drawn and some have imaginative character and personality. The backdrops are Japanese and urban, well-designed and interesting even if the situations are sometimes oddly American. The humor was good and certainly the film is worth watching if not worthy of purchase for repeated viewing. Serious anime fans will probably see more in it than I did, and children (especially preteen girls who like cats) will probably like it immensely.

Rating: 3 of 5 possible apples appleappleapple

The Cat Returns (2002)
Hiroyuki Morita, director
Studio Ghibli, DVD distributed in the US by Disney/Buena Vista 

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