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15 Years Later: The Cat Returns

27 May 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

15 years since its UK release, Miriam Blakemore-Hoy revisits this Studio Ghibli anime classic...

Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Starring: Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Tetsu Watanabe
Running time: 75 minutes

It’s been 18 years since Studio Ghibli released its 13th film, The Cat Returns, and 15 years since its arrival in the UK. In a departure from the regular creative direction of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, it’s a Ghibli directorial debut for Hiroyuki Morita. Maybe because of this, The Cat Returns feels different enough to question whether or not you’re actually watching a Ghibli film while at the same time convincing you that it must be one. 

This story is much tamer than other Ghibli films such as Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke – it tells the story of a young girl, Haru, who seems cursed with bad luck. From her clumsiness to her lack of organisation, everything she touches goes wrong. So when she rescues a strange cat from being run over, it follows that this is no ordinary cat but the Prince of Cats, and in attempting to reward her for her good deed, the King of the Cats and his court causes even more chaos.

The first thing you notice when watching this is the difference in animation style to other Ghibli projects. It’s more childlike in its rendering, which gives the whole thing more of an innocent and naïve feel. Because the story is simpler too, this does feel much more like a film aimed at and created for children. Often when watching a Miyazaki or Takahata film, there are quite serious and adult elements interwoven within the storyline which can make them feel so much darker.  

Leave your logic at the door, throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the ride

The Cat Returns stays pretty light-hearted and playful. It can take pretty bizarre turns at times with the changing sizes of characters and sets that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, the mingling of magical creatures and normal animals, and the mixing up of time and space that’s somehow Enid Blyton-like. But it simply wouldn’t be Studio Ghibli without the weird, the strange and the dreamlike. I often find that the more bizarre the action gets, the more it seems to make sense – you have to leave your logic at the door, throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the ride.

The story itself is really well paced, and the characters are all really likeable, especially grumpy Muta. It’s always worth watching in the original Japanese if you can, to experience the performance of the voice actors the way the director intended it to be. But the American voice cast also very much deserves a mention, especially Tim Curry’s Cat King with his “Ciao Babe” together with Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Elliott Gould and Peter Boyle amongst others, that makes it so very entertaining.  

It doesn’t have as much emotional maturity as, say, My Neighbour Totoro or When Marnie Was There, but that doesn’t seem to have been the intention. It’s a short, fun ride through a modern fairytale that will make you wish you too could squeeze through the door to the Cat Kingdom and have some adventures too.

Did you know? The animation began as a 20-minute short commissioned by a theme park. After the park cancelled the project, Hayao Miyazaki asked Morita to turn it into a 45-minute film, and eventually extended the running time to a full 75 minutes when Morita submitted a 525-page storyboard.

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