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Film Review: A Whisker Away

18 June 20 words: Jamie Morris

This new Netflix original film is a solid recommendation for any fan of animation, romance, or cats...

Directors: Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama
Starring: Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Koichi Yamadera
Running time: 104 minutes

Cats have it so easy; no responsibilities, food on demand, and as many naps as they like. Many of us would leap at the chance to live like one. In the world of animation, opportunities like that come up a little more often than in real life - including in Netflix original anime A Whisker Away. This new feature film is only the second from Japan’s Studio Colorido, announced in January before swiftly making its international debut on the streaming platform, and sees angsty teen Miyo “Muge” Sasaki buy a mask from a giant talking cat so that she can turn into a kitten to get closer to a boy at school. 

Miyo’s nickname means “no limits”, and in typical fairy-tale fashion, her whimsical nature eventually results in drama when her bargain with the mystical Mask Seller means she might remain a cat forever. It’s a Ghibli-esque fantasy-romance told through the lens of recent hits like Your Name and A Silent Voice; charming characters are set against realistic backgrounds and bathed in ambient lighting as we watch them fall in love. In A Whisker Away - whose Japanese title literally translates to Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat - the unconditional love between pets and their owners is contrasted with romantic attraction to make for a sweet and really enjoyable picture. 

Junichi Sato is no amateur at tapping into young-adult viewers’ hearts, with a decades-spanning body of work as a director that includes the first two seasons of the iconic nineties TV series Sailor Moon. By adhering closely to current trends, Sato’s latest anime isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s still of a very high standard, featuring great artwork and animation assisted by Tomotaka Shibayama: a prominent animator spreading his wings in his debut as a feature film co-director. There are plenty of impressive frames throughout - especially as the fantasy element becomes more prominent - and characters’ movements (including the cats’) have weight and three-dimensionality.

A film that’ll give plenty of people a reason to smile

As with most foreign-language content on Netflix right now, the film’s English dub has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but fortunately there’s some solid Japanese voice acting to be found here. Mirai Shida gets lots of time to shine with Muge’s many outbursts, and there are no noticeable weaknesses among the supporting cast. However, the lack of a memorable soundtrack leaves the possibility that these performances could have been boosted somewhat by the use of some powerful music as a backdrop.

A Whisker Away’s main setback lies in its predictability. Both protagonists are quite cut-and-paste; Muge is the girl who hides her loneliness behind humour, and Hinode is the reserved, studious love interest. Screenwriter Mari Okada skilfully operates within these archetypes to provide some fun dialogue, but the plot still relies on well-worn story beats and cliches that grind the narrative progression to quite a slow-moving pace as the excitement dwindles. Yet it’s worth noting that a minor antagonist with more interesting motivations than the Mask Seller emerges later on to add an extra dimension to the story.

Investment in the anime industry has been a major project at Netflix for a few years now, and it certainly seems to have paid off when you see high-quality content like this landing exclusively on the platform. Both accessible to newcomers and impressive enough to prick up the ears of existing animation fans, A Whisker Away is a film that’ll give plenty of people a reason to smile. 

Did you know? Koichi Yamadera, who voices the Mask Seller, has starred in the Japanese dubs of several Hollywood movies. Some of his past roles include Austin Powers, Borat and Benjamin Button.

A Whisker Away is now available on Netflix

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