Haiku film review #073 – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary finds flower
Gains some magical power
Things don’t go sour

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The story behind 猫の恩返し / The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)

The Cat Returns was released in 2002, hot on the heels of the globally-acclaimed Spirited Away. Hiroyuki Morita’s feature debut was destined to be one of Studio Ghibli’s less-acclaimed releases, but still holds a place in the heart of its many fans. So how did it come about and how does it hold up 16 years after its original release?

The journey to ‘The Cat Returns’ began some fourteen years earlier, when Aoi Hiiragi released her manga ‘Mimi o Sumaseba’. Serialised in the magazine Ribon between August and November 1989, this short release was a huge hit and caught the imagination of a young Yoshifumi Kondô, who at the time had just finished as supervising animator on Studio Ghibli’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

Soon the studio had acquired the rights to produce a feature film based on the manga, and Kondô was being lined up to make his directorial debut.

In 1995, the film was released. Known in English-speaking countries as ‘Whisper of the Heart’, it hit the big screens in Japan to unanimous acclaim. It was also the highest-grossing film in its native country in 1995. [1]

Equally beautiful and mesmerising, the film focuses on Shizuku, a 14-year-old girl living in Tokyo with a head full of ideas.

Early in the film, Shizuku becomes intrigued by a chance meeting with a stray cat on a train. This cat, Muta, leads her to a mysterious antiques shop. Inside the shop is a curious statue of a cat called The Baron. Inspired, Shizuku spends a significant time in the film attempting to write a novel inspired by these elements.

Four years later, Studio Ghibli received a request from a theme park to create a 20-minute animated short. Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, two of the founders of the company, explored a concept based around these key elements of the girl’s story, enlisting Aoi Hiiragi to write the plot to a spiritual successor to her smash hit.

Her starting point was to assume that her lead character Shizuka was writing the story herself, a period after the end of ‘Whisper of the Heart’. Though the theme park project was cancelled, this story later materialised in the form of a manga. That manga was the basis of a feature length film called ‘The Cat Returns’.

Miyazaki and Suzuki may have been showing faith in other directors, but it was with restrictions. ‘The Cat Returns’ was ostensibly intended as a testing ground for new director Hiroyuki Morita, who had been an animator on several Ghibli features, and was slated for a direct-to-video release. The strength of Morita’s storyboards led to a change of direction and the film was instead destined to be released in cinemas.

Morita was at the top of the team, leading everyone working on the production. In an interview at the time, Miyazaki was excited about the new generation of animators. “If they see Ghibli as a brand, the production team won’t be able to bear the pressure,” he said. “But at the same time, if they don’t try to overcome the pressure they won’t succeed.”

Whilst this film is seen as a success, his position as a successor to the founding members of Ghibli eventually did not come to fruition. He worked as a key animator on later film ‘Tales From Earthsea’, which was directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, but that is where the buck stops. Indeed, he has not been involved with any animation projects since 2011.

This lack of output is a real shame, because ‘The Cat Returns’ is a real triumph. It never feels like a lacklustre release that you’d typically expect of a direct-to-video film and it’s clear that the choice to take it to theatres was the correct one.

An interview with Morita from the time of release shows what he was trying to achieve with the lead character Haru. His reading of her is that she is natural, spontaneous and uncalculating. He was clearly passionate about the character and the project, and it was an honour for him to be the third director other than Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to direct a feature for Ghibli.

Coming immediately after Spirited Away and therefore garnering much more focus than the studio would have expected when the project started, it does enough to hold its own against what has become regarded as Miyazaki’s magnum opus. The magical elements are muted – a talking cat is a surprise to Haru initially but she comes around to the idea very quickly. It deals with the character’s concerns whimsically rather than with a suggestion of any danger, making it a more child-friendly entry point to the gamut. Perhaps more so than the more recognised Ghibli releases, it feels rooted in the real world – no easy achievement for a film about a girl kidnapped and turned into a cat by The Cat King.

If you’re reading this then chances are you’re from an English-speaking country. If that’s the case then it’s likely you watched the English dub of the film. I usually prefer the original audio, but opted for English on this occasion. I admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Anne Hathaway portrays the lead role of Haru, yelping and screaming her way through the film in the same way original actress Chizuru Ikewaki had. It feels fun and fitting. Cary Elwes provides a traditional aristocratic British voice for The Baron. He has stated it was a combination of David Niven and Alec Guinness, which gives him real dignity and poise. Both are spot on in their leading roles, with both relied heavily on their original Japanese counterparts to give a real sense of energy.

Clearly, as with most animated films translated to a second language, there is an issue with matching the beats to the original acting. It doesn’t always work. It’s similar to ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and replaces emotional delivery with technical accuracy. Peter Boyle’s Mutu is arguably the biggest culprit of this, with a mismatch to the character that feels significantly out of place. Conversely, Andy Richter is wonderful as the king’s assistant Natoru, despite this role originally being portrayed by female voice actor Mari Hamada. Most bizarrely, The Cat King actually looks like Tim Curry, despite his involvement coming long after the animation had finished.

‘The Cat Returns’ will never be considered as one of the greats of the Studio Ghibli features. But it’s in great company and certainly holds its own as a fitting side-story to a better original. It offers more of an appeal to children and could be a good entry point for parents wanting a safe start to their child’s anime interest. To see it restored in wonderful high-definition means there’s never been a better way to enjoy it.

[1] http://www.eiren.org/toukei/1995.html

Lack of updates

Hi everyone!

I’m really sorry but I’ve been extremely relaxed on the number of posts recently. My life has been crazily busy recently with work and a few personal family things going on.

I’ve got a bunch of articles half-written in the drafts section that I’m hoping to finish over the coming weeks. I expect in the future my output will be more structured but less frequent.

The good news is that I have still been finding time to keep up with visits to the cinema.  I also got chance to go to the simply breathtaking Blade Runner Secret Cinema in London in late March. If you get chance, just do it.

I’ve been keeping track of what I’ve been seeing on Letterboxd, a site designed for people to share their experiences of film with friends. My profile can be found here and it would be great if you could all add me on there so I can make more of a connection.

 

Film review – War Paint (Lesley Selander, 1953)

Lesley Selander was a veteran in directing western films by the time War Paint was released in 1953. From 1936 onwards he had directed at least three features a year, eventually reaching a grand total of 107 by the time he retired with Arizona Bushwackers in 1968.

War Paint is one of his later efforts, and Selander walks the line between showing himself to be a veteran of the genre and showing he has exhausted every foible available to make a film interesting.

It stars Robert Slack as Lt. Billings, who is put in charge of delivering a peace treaty to a powerful Native American chief. He sets off with a party of men, only to be tracked by Taslik (Keith Larsen) and Wanima (Joan Taylor), both Native Americans strongly against the treaty. Taslik joins the party, but leads them in a large circle whilst promising them he will lead them to water. Dehydrated and beginning to hallucinate, the party’s morale unravels as tensions rise.

It is a flawed film for several reasons. One of the more interesting characters is Wanima, portrayed by Joan Taylor. She is a dead-shot with the rifle, successfully killing American soldiers with her accurate aim. She is silent as she tracks the party for miles without being discovered. However, when she is eventually found she loses all of her character and becomes more of a damsel in distress, undoing about an hour of hard work from the script writers and from Taylor.

The stock footage used for the circling vultures appears several times and is clearly from a different reel, with nothing done to hide the cracks in the footage. It is a source of humour, but I suppose was quicker than replicating the shot from scratch.

It was filmed on location in Death Valley National Park, the first motion picture to have done so. It is clearly a wonderful and largely untouched location, and was (and is) home to many Native American tribes, adding an air of authenticity to the picture.

The war paint of the title refers primarily to the paint adorning the face of Taslik, which signifies his achievements in murdering settler soldiers. Unfortunately, the overall impression left by the film is more “War-Paint-by-numbers” than anything more sinister.

A decent film with an exciting climax, but nothing that makes it worth seeking out over anything else in the Western genre you might stumble upon.

Film review – Cross (2011)

The Wikipedia page for sci-fi action film Cross boasts that it was the 41st most popular film on the Internet Movie Database when it was released. This tells me one of two things. Either there were only 41 motion pictures in existence upon its release, or director Patrick Durham wrote the Wikipedia page.

It is truly an atrocious film, with the acting sinking to hitherto never-before-seen depths of dreadfulness. A miriad of accents are on display, but there’s no real reason for it; the actors are clearly struggling and embarrassed about attempting Scottish, Irish and English accents and wildly missing the mark.

The characters all have cool names like Backfire and Riot. Nobody portraying the characters has any kind of presence to make their scenes feel like they’re intimidating members of gangs, thus the only conclusion is that they assigned themselves their own names to help elevate their status amongst their fellow goons.

It’s clear that the shortcomings in acting is a fault of director Durham. Eventually the more renowned actors show up – an early scene between Michael Clarke Duncan and Vinnie Jones offers hope that things might pick up – but even that is undermined by shoddy camerawork, framing and lighting. It’s like a 101 in how not to shoot a movie on the cheap.

Indeed, cheap is the word that remained at the forefront of my mind throughout the film. The soundtrack is poor, with a bunch of soulless non-descript ska-punk-rock anthems filling in as background noise about ten years after the genre was last fashionable.

When the sex scenes arrived, with the lights and underwear very much left on, I just felt awkward for the actors. I think we all wanted it to be over.

The worst performance was from Robert Carradine as Dr Zyal. Totally over-the-top and mismatched to the rest of the film, but in a way that absolutely doesn’t work. Imagine the horror when I realised he turns out to be one of the key antagonists of the film.

It’s a poor action film that tries to cover its downfalls up with stylised comic book visuals and a few wacky deliveries. Unfortunately, the graphics are as cheap as the rest of it and the overall effect is a poor imitation of so many much better films.

Avoid it with a passion.