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Published on April 10th, 2006 | by admin


The Cat Returns

The cat returned, having omitted to pick up his fob watch from the drawing room night-stand.

The cat returned, having omitted to pick up his fob watch from the drawing room night-stand.

By Melanie Sheridan

I’ve got a theory: cats are to the Orient what dogs are to the Occident, in a broadly determined archaic geographical sense. In short, dogs are viewed with “awww cute” fondness by most Westerners, and thus make suitable subjects for twee fiction, whereas cats are frequently treated with suspicion (especially in Australia, as recent RSPCA campaigns with Stan ‘the Man’ Longinidis prove).

Yes, yes, yes, I’m ignoring a lot. That’s deliberate for this theory to work. The point is, while watching The Cat Returns I came to the conclusion that such a film would never have been made in the West. Were it a Disney Film, the cats would be dogs, and the heroine would have been whisked away to big old kennel in the sky; most importantly, there would be no ambiguity, no dark side. But this is Studio Ghibli, and The Cat Returns is the story of Haru, a schoolgirl who saves the life of an unusual cat and is thrown into the sort of fantastical feline adventure that just wouldn’t occur in Western fiction. Haru’s good deed is rewarded (although she feels she’s being punished – aha! the ambiguity!) with a barrage of presents, including gift-wrapped mice and an arranged marriage to the Cat King’s son! Stranded and losing her identity in the Kingdom of Cats, Haru must embody the moral of the tale ­– believe in yourself – to survive.

Featuring two characters Studio Ghibli fans will recall from Whisper Of The Heart , Muta the fat white cat and The Baron, The Cat Returns is less the sequel that name implies and more companion piece; it could even be a prequel, the timing is irrelevant. In fact, the original Japanese title, Neko No Ongaeshi , is more correctly translated as The Cat Returns A Favour. Knowing that the film is based on Whisper author Aoi Hiiragi’s comic, Baron: Neko no Danshaku , in which it is implied that the Cat Kingdom is, more literally, a cat heaven does change the atmosphere somewhat, from a sweet kiddy fairytale to something darker, and curioser – to paraphrase Alice, the closest Western equivalent to Haru.

The directorial debut of Ghibli illustrator Hiroyuki Morita, The Cat Returns lacks the sophistication of Ghibli star Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away , which deals with a similar theme, but has enough hand painted, old fashioned charisma to it that anyone sick of the sterile sheen of CGI should find something in it to enjoy.

The promo DVD didn’t have an option to watch in the original Japanese, a prospect that initially palled me given that most English language versions of anime are done by cloyingly vapid yanks resulting in an aural terrorising, but The Cat Returns features a somewhat more varied and palatable English vocal cast, including the always swoonable Cary Elwes ( The Princess Bride ), Elliott Gould, Tim Curry and Kristine Sutherland – aka Joyce Summers for the Buffy fans – as Haru’s mother.

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