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

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Film review – レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017)

The Red Turtle may find it hard to be discovered by a dedicated mainstream market. This is almost inevitable for a feature-length traditionally-animated film that involves no spoken words at all, with a simple but thought-provoking story line. Its limited release reflects a genuine assessment of the expected appeal to the wider market. 

This is a shame because the film is a genuine triumph.

The film opens with a man being thrown around helplessly in an unnamed ocean. Struggling to fight the waves, he falls unconscious, later waking up on an uninhabited island. 

The nameless man never speaks, aside from the occasional “Hey!”, whilst his heritage is also somewhat ambiguous. Shipwrecked on an island and left to fend for himself, he busies himself with building a raft to escape and reunite himself with the outside world. However, a large red turtle prevents him from escaping, attacking the raft every time he attempts to leave. When it unexpectedly washes up on shore, he faces a conundrum – free it or exact revenge. 

If you have any fears about The Red Turtle maintaining your attention, you needn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.

The beauty of the film comes in its simplicity. With no character back stories, no names, no requirement to set the scene beyond the initial opening gambit, we’re left to ponder its surprisingly inspirational content.

Around halfway through the film, the man’s decision to flip the turtle on its back is doubtlessly divisive. Left without much else to focus on, my mind inevitably ended up wondering what I would do in the same situation. The turtle dies, which the man immediately regrets and feels great sorrow for. I felt equally guilty for feeling like he wasn’t completely in the wrong. A senseless murder of an innocent animal, but one that felt partly justified as revenge.

It’s a simple act that drives the more fantastical second half of the film. The lifeless body of the turtle disappears and is replaced with a young, beautiful woman, whom the man subsequently falls in love with.

Clearly, this is a film that is steeped in the metaphorical, encouraging the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of what they are seeing – and giving them the space to do so.
The turtle is a visual representation of man’s relationship to nature. Even as the stranded man fights against the tides and tries to leave the island, the turtle forces him back onto the island, on which he has everything he could possibly need to simply continue to survive. The turtle evenrtually provides him with companionship and, later, a child, this providing him with a fulfilling life too. 

It is a tale in part about man’s short-sightedness towards a nature that gives him everything, highlighting the knee jerk reaction to things he doesn’t understand. It is about the cycle of human life, about the destructive nature of humanity and about the forgiving nature of the surrounding environment – a nature that is forced to adapt to humanity’s shortcomings and still provide a platform for all life – human or otherwise – to continue.

For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.

Life after Ghibli?

Two new trailers have been released for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the debut film from Japanese animation company Studio Ponoc.

Watch them first, then read on to find out more.

Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Studio Ponoc is a new Japanese animation house based in Tokyo. The head of the company is Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was lead producer for two Studio Ghibli films: When Marnie Was There and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

It is clear to see the similarities with the best of Ghibli in the above clips, and it’s not just Nishimura who connects the two studios.

Hiromasa “Maro” Yonebayashi is directing the feature, having also directed Ghibli films The Secret World of Arriety and When Marnie Was There. He also worked as an animator on the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Essentially, he was a key player at Ghibli. 

Maro pens the script alongside Riko Sakaguchi, the screenwriter of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, another excellent Ghibli film released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Takatsugu Muramatsu returns as film composer, having provided the score for When Marnie Was There.

There is currently no official U.K. release date for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but it is scheduled to hit cinemas sometime in 2017. Traditionally Ghibli films took around a year to make the transition to English and finally get a release in the U.K., but who knows if the same rules will apply here.

Whatever happens, there will be a huge amount of interest in the film when it surfaces.

Film review – 君の名は。/ Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

It is very unusual for a Japanese animated film to make it beyond the smaller art house cinemas littered around the country. Most don’t make it that far. Even the most recent Studio Ghibli releases – When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – failed to ignite the chain multiplexes, despite a global popularity that is unrivalled for world cinema.

It is strange then that Your Name has found itself in amongst the blockbusters at Showcase Cinemas in the UK this week, alongside the likes of Strange Beasts and Where to Find Them and Doctor Strange. No doubt many cinema goers will be nonplused that a weird Japanese film is taking up one of the screens, blissfully unaware that neither Cumberbatch nor Redmayne stand a chance of usurping Makoto Shinkai’s romantic fantasy anime to top the annual box office charts this year in Japan. As of 21st November it has taken 189.8m USD, making it Japan’s seventh highest grossing film of all time.

Films that are popular in Japan, of course, don’t always transfer to the global market, as exemplified by the rest of the all-time top ten films in terms of box office takings. Five are Japanese (of which only one is live action). No Japanese film bothers the equivalent top 100 list for global takings.

So what’s Your Name about and why is it so popular? It tells the story of Mitsuha, a high school girl living in the isolated countryside of Itomori, who makes a wish to be brought back as a handsome Tokyo high school boy in a future life. The next morning Taki, a high school boy living in Tokyo, wakes up in Mitsuha’s body, whilst she is now living in his body. It’s a classic body-swap setup that has served many good (and bad) films well in the past.

Or as it’s known by the poorly educated, You’re Name

The film may start in the most simple of ways, but as Mikota Shinkai throws a couple of devastating curveballs into the robust script to juxtapose the well-balanced comedic elements, it quickly becomes apparent where the success has come from. It’s a story driven by two characters that develop at a perfect rate to drive the plot forwards, and a serendipitous romance that is easy to get engrossed in.

Visually, the quality of the animation is very reminiscent of the best work of Studio Ghibli, particularly in the Itomori countryside scenes, away from the bright city lights of Tokyo. It’s such a relief to see something like this being released as Ghibli are finished as a motion picture production house, or at least going on a prolonged hiatus. Shinkai is being hailed as the new Hiyao Miyazaki, which seems far fetched on paper but in reality may not be so unrealistic. Unsurprisingly, he sites Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky as his favourite film. His passion and dedication to follow in Miyazaki’s footsteps is abundantly on show here, from the beautifully-realised backdrops to the organic growth of the lead characters as the story progresses.

Put simply, it’s a beautiful film with a lot of heart and an engrossing story. What more could you ask for?

Film review – 思い出のマーニー / When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2016)

The latest film released from the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is also the final feature film they will ever release. At least, that’s the line they’re taking. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that this isn’t true, although secretly most Ghibli fans – myself included – hope there will be something else around the corner. 

A glimmer of hope has come in the suggestion that more short films will be produced for the Saturn Theatre, the small cinema that resides inside the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. Unfortunately for those of us outside Japan, seeing the existing ones is quite the task – you’ll need at least a return plane ticket to Japan and some forward planning to get tickets to the museum itself. Oh, they only screen one film a day and you can only see it once. There isn’t any plan to screen any of them anywhere else in the world, so seeing the sequel to Totoro might not be something to add to your bucket list.

All this sadly leaves us with only one more Studio Ghibli film to enjoy at the cinema, finally seeing the light of day almost two years after its release in Japan. When Marnie Was There is based on the original novel of the same name by British author Joan G. Robinson, with many of the details changed from the original novel. Most notably, the location has been changed from Norfolk in England to Sapporo in Hokkaido, Japan.


The storyline deals with a young girl, Anna, who suffers from anxiety and asthma. A loner at her school and lacking in confidence, she is sent away to live with family friends in Sapporo on the advice of her doctor, who suggests that leaving the city for the clearer air and change of scenery will cure her ailments.

Once there, she struggles to settle until she happens on a mysterious building called The Marsh House, inside which a beautiful young girl name Marnie is living, a girl with whom she strikes up an immediate and very close friendship.

So how does When Marnie Was There fit into the greater Ghibli catalogue? Instantly it will strike you that it’s just as beautifully animated as anything we’ve seen before, with hand-drawn drawings taking us on the typically personal, solitary journey of the main character. Animation has seldom looked this good, and I include Disney’s output in this statement too.

The storyline will be familiar to those fans of previous Ghibli works. A young girl sent away from her comfort zone to new surroundings dealing with a secretive and mysterious occurrence, via an unlikely friendship. It is ground well worn, but that shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss it. 

Anna herself is a wonderfully realised creation. The sense of isolation as she sits at school having an asthma-induced panic attack is heartbreaking and as realistic as any live-action portrayal of anxiety I’ve ever seen. This is a critical achievement – get it wrong and we’re dealing with a whiny self-obsessed teenager for two hours.

It is perhaps not as immediate as some of the more celebrated works. It’s a frustrating time to be a Ghibli fan. It’s probably the last film to hit the big screen, but it’s not the best place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the studio. If you can, watch My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away straight away, then head to the cinema to catch this before you run out of time.

Short film review – やどさがし / Looking For A Home (Hayao Miyazaki, 2006)

Looking For A Home is a short film that was written, produced and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. It is shown exclusively at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan [1].

The film follows a girl as she sets out from her home on a trip away from her busy city dwelling to the calmer countryside, through forests and into a tiny cottage she discovers along the way. At each point she thanks the aspects of nature she experiences (a fish, the trees, etc.) with an apple. Everything is represented by a unique human-voiced sound which are also written out on the screen to humorous effect.

This is a perfect short film to experience at the Studio Ghibli Museum for non-Japanese speakers, because the whole thing is very visual and the audio can be enjoyed without any understanding of Japanese. It is a sweet film aimed at children but, as with most of the output from Studio Ghibli, it is equally enjoyable for adults too.

[1] The Ghibli Museum has a small cinema called The Saturn Theatre. In this, they show one of nine short films for visitors on each day. Each visitor gets one ticket to the short film selected for that day so there is no chance of seeing more than one per visit. It is complete pot luck what you’ll see on your visit.