Synopsis : High school student Haru rescues a cat that was about to be run over by a truck and discovers the cat is actually a prince named Lune. Out of gratitude, Lune’s father, the Cat King, asks her to marry Lune. Haru is brought to the Cat Kingdom, where she starts to develop feline features. When she is prevented from leaving, the Baron and Toto, two statues that have magically been given life, provide assistance in gaining her freedom,
Watching The Cat Returns felt like reading shoujo manga. Haru is your typical shoujo klutz depressed over the cool dark-haired guy at school. The Baron is dapper with his tea (a cat of culture), European affectations and dashing persona. The film’s script was even written by Reiko Yoshda, the writer of Tokyo Mew Mew – although the shoujo-isms probably have more to do with the fact that its source material was created by an artist who wrote primarily for shoujo magazines like Ribon.
I fixate so much on this because it serves to emphasise the artificiality of the story. The Cat Returns can eschew any attempt at realism because, technically, it’s only a story. The Cat Returns is a sequel to Whisper of the Heart, and was intended to be ‘written’ by Shizuku, the heroine of the latter film. On that note, the film suddenly takes on a new dimension, as Shizuku’s character shine through it. I could imagine her at her writing desk, fantasising about what Moon (or Muta) got up to in his strange world, then creating this wonderful fairy tale story (she did love fairy tales) about Moon’s secret world of cats. Then putting the Baron in it because he’s a cat and why not. The references to Whisper of the Heart made this film a pleasant, nostalgic watch – it felt like meeting an old friend. And it’s just nice to think of Shizuku flourishing, telling stories beyond the confines of a 2-hour movie and a silver screen. It made her character feel genuine.
So The Cat Returns is an addendum to a richer film. Besides that, it’s a slight, but cute little film. It is shallow: Haru’s character growth isn’t that compelling and the plot’s last third is clumsy. But that’s fine. It’s got oodles of charm and a great sense of humour. The film really mines the inherent ridiculousness of the scenario, using the whimsy as a jumping off point for some really funny jokes. Unlike Ocean Waves, which tried to convince me that its banal melodrama was an introspective reflection on adolescence, The Cat Returns embraces its self-indulgence and has a good time with it. Haru, the Baron, Muta and Toto have great chemistry with each other, and the character designs are easily my favourite in a Ghibli film yet – I love how cat-like Haru is even before her troubles begin.
There’s something the Baron says when he meets Haru that really touched me. “Sometimes, when people create something and they put their heart into it, their creation comes alive with its own soul.” I saw this as a reference to Yoshifumi Kondo, the director of Whisper of the Heart, who passed away after his work on the film. It’s a declaration of the sincerity of that film and its message to artists, who have resonated deeply with it since – an affirmation of Kondo’s legacy. The Cat Returns is a sweet watch, and a beautiful tribute to the film that came before it.