Twitter was abuzz over the weekend at (mainly erroneous) reports that the iconic Studio Ghibli was ceasing production. Whilst the outlook for the studio remains pretty grim, it is also clear that at this stage the studio is not pulling out of making animated films. My heart was even more particularly warmed by this news than it would have normally been because the night before I had watched what is my new favourite Studio Ghibli film – The Cat Returns (2002).
Blu-ray is a bit of a forgotten medium I think, with many assuming it is just the last dead duck physical format before everyone moves to some sort of cloud based subscription service (nooooooo!). Personally, I love blu-ray and this film is a perfect example of why. It is remarkable just how much the colour and animation pops when this film is viewed on blu-ray and it enhances the look of a film which is rendered in an even finer and more painting like style than is the norm for the studio. The story begins with a remarkable act of kindness as a young girl Haru bravely saves a rather remarkable cat. It turns out that this cat is a prince from the Cat Kingdom, and as such the young girl is showered with attempted acts of kindness and repayment from the kingdom. It starts out innocent, though misguided enough, with Haru being followed everywhere by cats and receiving far too many gift boxed mice. However the stakes of the film are escalated when it is demanded that Haru wed the cat prince, something she is rather keen to avoid. Ghibli films always intrigue and The Cat Returns, with the whimsy of cat’s wandering about on hind legs engaging with each other and humans, definitely intrigues a lot. Not to mention the fact that all of the cats have such different personalities, a stark difference from the standard Disney animal sidekick. There is also a sense of more pure adventure in this film than most of the studio’s output that I have viewed. There are thrills and tension galore and if that’s not enough, there’s a freakin maze!
I am not sure if The Cat Returns is an adaptation of a single fairytale, but at the very least there are a lot of classical influences on the story. It feels like it an amalgam of a bunchy of delightful moments from classic tales. And as the tweet above from Dave Crewe of http://www.ccpopculture.com pointed out when we were discussing the film, there is a subtle inversion of fairy tale tropes going on in the film as well. Both visually and narratively, the film recalls Alice in Wonderland, with a young girl adrift in a strange fantastical land slowly gathering a cohort of colleagues to hopefully help her navigate it. In a similar way to Wonderland, the Cat Kingdom is an incredibly built place, one where there is an underlying sense of threat and malice, continually bubbling under the somewhat bright and cheerful surface. In fact that is a hallmark of classical fairy tales, as brightness is always accompanied by darkness or even evil. The tone of the film is whimsical, breezy and light occasionally going as far as bordering on the absurdist. Having said that though, the narrative is essentially linear, so there is no narrative confusion posing as absurdism lurking in the film. Which is great and different to both the more serious environmental old school fantasy novel vibe of Princess Mononoke (1997) or the vibrant assaulting of the senses weirdness and danger of Spirited Away (2001). In fact coming out of the same studio, those two films are an interesting counterpoint to this film, even though broadly speaking all three films reside in the same genre.
The Cat Returns is chiefly an exercise in tone. It is a film that is whimsical and playful, especially when interacting with and subverting fairy tale norms. Funny, adventurous and thrilling, this is definitely one to add to your Ghibli ‘to watch’ list if you have never managed to catch it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter