In 2002 Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli released, to date, their only ‘sequel’, in The Cat Returns. This short 75-minute adventure follows Haru, a high schooler who rescues a strange cat from being run over only to find herself subject to lavish gifts from the fabled Cat Kingdom, including a rather unwanted marriage proposal.
‘Sequel’ is stretching it a bit with The Cat Returns. Ostensibly following on from 1995’s whimsical masterpiece, Whisper Of The Heart, this movie takes a few key elements and fashions a completely different story with them. Instead of the exploration of a young girl’s burgeoning inner drive and tinges of romance, we have a light fantasy adventure in which talking cats and hidden kingdoms come into play.
Realising she is in trouble from the persistent Kingdom cats and on the advice of a mysterious voice, Haru tracks down the Cat Bureau, staffed by: grumpy fat cat Muta; quick witted magical stone crow Toto; and suave leader The Baron. The Baron is the ‘returning cat’ from Whisper Of The Heart but whereas before he was an inanimate small statuette with emerald eyes, this time he is brought to life by hazy ‘magic’. Voiced (in the English Dub) by the also very suave Cary Elwes, the Baron is a great self-confident adventurer character who is used sparingly but effectively throughout the movie.
Oddly, as Studio Ghibli is stacked to the gills with strong female characters who either stand firm or go through important emotional journeys, Haru is almost a refreshing protagonist for doing neither. She is a slighty ditzy high school student who falls over a lot, has an unrequited crush on a classmate, and generally runs late to everything. There some plot about her having to ‘believe in herself’ in order to later escape the magical kingdom of cats, but really her inability to help herself sits just on the right side of endearingly useless.
At a lean 75 minutes, the movie moves along at a quick lick of speed. It isn’t long before Haru’s arranged marriage in the kingdom of cats becomes an immediate reality. Shrunk down to cat size, she is faced with surely one of the most mangy cats to grace a screen in The Cat King. His arrogant casual stupidity is contrasted with an exasperated but dedicated concierge who themselves make for a great double act. When things all get a bit swords, swashbuckler, need-to-escape-from-a-giant-maze-through-a-magical-portal like, it is this light hearted comedy that keeps things bouncing along.
In truth, the least said about the plot the better in The Cat Returns. This sits firmly in ‘enjoy the ride’ not ‘get sucked into a story’ because you can feel the narrative bunching up around the edges. The high school crush I mentioned earlier? Not followed up at all. Haru’s journey for self-confidence? It just kinda happens at the appropriate moment. Muta’s mysterious backstory? Get ready for earth-shattering hunger powers! The movie lets itself play out and then crams in a few minutes of total plot dump to resolve most of the threads dangled in front of your face all in one go, which is hardly the best pacing.
The Cat Returns is certainly not the most critically acclaimed, well regarded like The Red Turtle, or even popular of the Studio Ghibli canon. However, due to its light tone and likeable characters it is best served as a good gateway movie for younger viewers (along with the likes of Ponyo). But even so this cheeky upstart has its place among the towering works of legendary other directors. Princess Mononoke may be a rich cultural narrative, and Only Yesterday a meditation on past regrets, but if you just want to curl up in a warm sunbeam of a Sunday afternoon then The Cat Returns makes for comfortable and reassuring viewing.
Words by Michael Record