As part of the BFI’s Studio Ghibli Season, Oliver Davis revisits The Cat Returns…
“But look at how they walk,” she squirmed, uncomfortably, at the cats awkwardly moving forward on their hind legs. “It’s creepy. I don’t wanna watch anymore.” And so, about 20 minutes in, we switched over.
She was right, you know. The cats walk slightly off-balance, their legs too short for their bodies, bestowing on them an odd, waddling gait; their front paws held aloft like a camp T-Rex’s. Nevertheless, their strut was an interesting aspect to take issue with. Of all the unnatural things to occur in The Cat Returns – talking crows, inanimate objects jumping to life, undertones of bestiality – the felines’ march is relatively tame.
The story, as is that production house’s way, is structured like a dream, tugging on the frayed ends of a narrative thread. A girl, Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki [or a young Anne Hathaway in the US overdub]) saves a cat from traffic, the cat turns out to be the Cat Kingdom’s prince, the King decides they should marry and she’s whisked away into their secret world. A standard ‘meet cute,’ then, just with talking cats and hidden dimensions. Not much is explained. These things are just there, matter-of-factly. Yeah, a flock of crows can support human weight. At a refreshingly light 75 minutes, you don’t PAWS to think about it.
Please, tip your waitress.
Supporting Haru are two of Ghibli’s greatest creations: Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada/Cary Elwes) and Muta (Tetsu Watanabe/Peter Boyle). The former is a handcrafted, well-dressed ornamental cat brought to life (because, you know, why not?); the latter, a fat, moaning, feline slob who’s touchy about his weight. The Cat Kingdom itself is a magical place, filled with even more weirdly walking cats. There are tiny hints towards how large this world might be, with different Royal families seated around the dinner scene: European-looking cats, farmer-attired ones; Ancient Egyptian cats, of course.
Yet beneath all this complex fantasy lies a rather simple message: believe in yourself. Haru is a chronic late riser, obsessive over her schoolgirl crush. She’s desperate to be associated with anything ‘cool.’ One look at the Empire’s ‘cool’ central castle, and maybe she doesn’t think it’d be that bad living as the prince’s wife. She’s evidently unaware of the male cat’s barbed penis.
It’s all symptomatic of a deeper anxiety and uncertainty over her own self. Her slow transformation into a cat while in the Kingdom (this is the movie’s ticking time bomb) is merely a manifestation of this; a forming of her own identity (a consistent Ghibli theme). The message is neatly disguised in hand-drawn flights of fancy and oddly standing animals, a Trojan Cat to smuggle in a reflection on your own self, which permeates all the more for it.
The Cat Returns seems overlooked in Studio Ghibli’s rich oeuvre. The film boasts neither Miyazaki Hayao nor Takahata Isao as its director, and My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away will forever cast their shadows. Perhaps they are better works, but, for all their delightful absurdities, they don’t have walking cats.
Throughout April and May, the BFI on Southbank are screening all the Studio Ghibli films. For more information, click here.
Oliver Davis is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors. You can follow him on Twitter (@OliDavis).