What a bonkers film. One of the wonderful things about the animation medium is that it offers potential for all kinds of stories that would not work in a live-action setting. The Cat Returns is such a film, embroiled in so much absurdity and fantasy that it needs that wondrous disconnect from our reality.
Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is an average, unassuming high-schooler nervous about boys and a complete clutz. One day she saves a cat from being hit by a car and the cat turns out to not only talk, but to be Lune (Takayuki Yamada), prince of cats. For her act of bravery, he offers her his hand in marriage and due to a misunderstanding, he believes she accepts his proposal.
Yup. Bonkers. Haru thinks this is completely absurd but when cats start showing up and showering her with gifts, Haru has to saddle up and faces this problem. The film is self-aware enough to constantly prod at how absurd it all is, but it fully embraces the world and fantasy of a kingdom of cats and the weird politics of the cat world.
The film ties into Whisper of the Heart, but quite loosely and they exist on two ends of the extreme, Whisper being much more grounded than the fanciful outings of The Cat Returns. It might be Studio Ghibli’s most absurd film, an absolutely goofy outing played up for laughs.
And that is to the film’s credit as the comedy makes it easier to buy into how absurd the whole thing is. Constant gags and pratfalls mixed in with a generally absurd idea make the whole piece work as an absurdist tale that isn’t supposed to be taken all that seriously.
The downside is that this might be the most inconsequential Ghibli film. It lacks the dramatic beats or emotional moments of most of their films. That’s not to say the film is simple or childish; far from it. There’s an elegance to this level of absurdity, just don’t expect an emotional payoff.
On the animation front, it doesn’t always hold up. Haru’s face often seems oversimplified, but once those fantasy elements drop in and the lush backgrounds enter the picture, there’s no doubting how gorgeous this film is. And it’s a film that works because of the animation, playing up the goofy bits and making them much more palatable than live-action ever could.
By the end, The Cat Returns is an endearing film, the kind of bizarre, absurd outing that could only exist in animation. It’s likely considered unimportant in Ghibli’s body of work, but it’s a reminder that not every film has to be a serious, emotionally investing affair. Sometimes films can be silly and there’s nothing wrong with that.
© James Blake Ewing 2017