Thoughts On: The Cat Returns - At Your Own Pace


The Cat Returns - At Your Own Pace

Thoughts On: The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し, 2002)

A girl is pulled into a world of cats when she saves one from being run over.

The Cat Returns is Studio Ghibli's spin-off of their 1995 film, Whisper Of The Heart, which essentially brings to life a story set in the world of a book that the main character of that film writes. Whilst you are constantly aware of this fact, which means there is a hint of cheapness or weightlessness about this film, it is truly fantastic and a joy to watch.

The main issue with The Cat Returns is that it doesn't feel as rounded and full as other Ghibli films. This is probably because the film started out as a short meant for a theme park. It transformed into what was called the "Cat Project" as the story was developed by the Ghibli team and to-be director, Hiroyuki Morita - who had previously worked on the likes of My Neighbours The Yamadas. Because Morita's work on the story boarding of this short was so expansive and the characterisation was so rich, Ghibli decided to produce the Cat Project as a feature-length film which, of course, became The Cat Returns.

With short stories, there is a sense of structure and rhythm which drives to the heart of scenes, themes and beats and moves through them rather briskly. On paper this often works wonders as a writer can describe something such as a huge battle or the building of a romance with a few prosaic sentences or paragraphs; there is no real obligation, as there is in the cinema, to bring to life these tough set-pieces with detail. Anyone who has written a screenplay or made a film would be quite familiar with this fact; instead of saying two characters engage in a bloody battle on the page or in V.O, you are obliged to detail and construct an actual fight scene, punch-by-punch (this may not be the case in all screenplays, but it certainly is when shooting a film). The same could be said for a love sequence; it's difficult to visually communicate such a complex phenomena in a few moments. This is why most cinematic techniques, and most films, are built and structured around the gradual and detailed building of stories. When building a short film, or a film out of a short story, we can then imagine that the classical structure of narrative film is thrown out of the window - or, at the least, it is confused to a great degree.

This is what you sense when watching The Cat Returns; there is a lack of detail that would work if read in a book, but leaves things feeling a little too sparse in a film. Nonetheless, Morita does a tremendous job of managing this conflict between the short and feature length film. And he does this mainly by drawing upon the beats of tales we have heard many times before, which allows him to skip certain sequences and assume we intuitively understand certain characters. In essence, The Cat Returns is then a medieval/fantastical rescue the princess film such as Robin Hood colliding with a teen drama such as Whisper Of The Heart. This interface between classical and contemporary storytelling has been done many times before, and with very similar devices that The Cat Returns employs. In such, there are many films that see a story device fallen into and come to life. Think of Tron, Jumanji, The Neverending Story, Alice In Wonderland, Inkheart, Space Jam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, etc. All of these films feature a character going into, and a world coming out of, a book, game, film, movie or fictional world of some sort. And whilst The Cat Returns feels a little like these films, the one it shares the most with, in my view, is Labyrinth.

The degree to which Labyrinth and The Cat Returns are similar is sometimes a little uncanny. Consider the fact that both feature a story about a growing girl finding herself and figuring out who she is by being pulled into a fantastical world in which a king tries to court her, but that she eventually overcomes with help from her friends and by making it through a maze (which represents her inner-self).

I would not suggest that The Cat Returns is a rip-off of Labyrinth, however, as the beats, characters and symbols they share are pretty archetypal whilst all that differentiates them is hugely significant. Nonetheless, there is this expressive thematic connection between these films films, as well as the likes of The Neverending Story and Alice In Wonderland, based on this idea of finding out who you are and where you stand as the right of passage and the coming of age. The end result for most of these characters is then a revelation which details the ways in which they could be a better person. For Haru, this revelation concerns recognising the good she has already done, and the degree to which she should be comfortable with where she is in life. This translates to the idea that she needn't be jealous of a boy already in a relationship, nor let her life revolve around him.

The core of The Cat Returns is somewhat antithetical to many of the other coming-of-age films that Ghibli have made. Whilst the likes of Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service and Whisper Of The Heart are about kids growing up through change and hard work, The Cat Returns asks its character to pump the brakes a little. In such, all that changes about Haru is that she learns to wake up on time for school. That's it. Her huge adventure teaches her that maybe love isn't what she should be concentrating on in her life right now. This may sound like criticism, but, it is quite the opposite. The Cat Returns ultimately revises some of what is said in Whisper Of The Heart and revives some of the statements made in Spirited Away with a huge burst of character and joy.

Interestingly, like Chihiro from Spirited Away, Haru falls in love, not with a boy her age, but a creature. And this creature symbolises her own childhood; Baron reminds Haru of her love of cats as a child, and Haku reminds Chihiro of her brush with death when she almost drowned. Both of these creatures, whilst they are characterised as male, teach the protagonist about herself rather than a women she could grow up to be; they see her character strengthen, but they do not make a girl a young woman. What then fuels both of these stories is characters figuring out how to go at life at their own pace. And so it is this that revises some of what we see in Whisper Of The Heart as this features a young girl trying to catch up with a life she wants, to be better than she is, and to start on a road towards adulthood. With The Cat Returns opposing this message somewhat, it is not necessarily suggested that kids should just remain kids. However, considering the wider body of Ghibli films, there is a mediation between teaching kids about growing up through change and growing up through realisation. This relationship between the outer and inner journey is crucial as, as we grow up, we are forced to transform and must instigate some of our own personal transformations. As our bodies change, so then does the way we act, dress and operate; we are not in control of one form of change, but we are in control of the other. However, changing as such without thought is a recipe for disaster. As a result, as our appearances change, so must our conception of the world and of ourselves: our bodies must evolve with our minds. And such is the overarching point made by both Whisper Of The Heart and The Cat Returns; whilst one film sees a character physically transform as her life does, the other sees its character mentally transform. Both character journeys catalyse physical and mental changes, but there is a clear focus on either or in each film, which is why seeing them in relationship is pretty key.

In the end, though The Cat Returns feels as if it could be filled out a little, this is not just a joy to watch, but a film that, to a good degree, manages to capture a short film story structure and expand it quite well. I then highly recommend that anyone who hasn't seen this film give it a go. But, if you have seen The Cat Returns, what are your thoughts on it and everything we've discussed today?

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