The story behind Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns

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 – 夜明け告げるルーのうた / Lu Over The Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Japanese anime? Quirky soundtrack? Human forms an unlikely bond with a fish person? Yes, it may look on the surface to be just like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2010 film ‘Ponyo’, but Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Lu Over The Wall’, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend, is far from a simple rip-off.

The second release from the Science Saru Animation studio, after Yuasa’s earlier ‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’, centres around Kai (voiced by Suma Saitō), a gloomy and distant music-creating teenager living in a small fishing town in Japan with his father and grandfather. Kai is pestered into joining a band by two of his schoolmates. Their first rehearsal, on the abandoned Mermaid Island, awakens the interest of Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani), a mermaid who is vulnerable to sunlight but loves to listen to music and dance. Following a confrontation with bullies the band catch illegally poaching fish, Lu comes to the rescue and forms an unlikely bond with Kai and his bandmates as she joins the group and they are handed the opportunity to perform at a local festival.

This is a bizarre film that provides some genuine laughs throughout. The music is quirky, leading to some pretty imaginative reactions from the villagers when they first hear Lu singing. One suspects that this scene was exactly what the director Yuasa had in mind when he started, building the rest of the general idea towards making sure he got the best laughs out of these scenes. It’s daftly entertaining and really hits the spot.

There are more laughs when Lu breaks into a centre for stray dogs and releases them to create a wave of mer-puppies. It’s easy to imagine how much fun the animators and story writers were having when they conceptualised that.

‘Lu Over The Wall’ won the top prize at this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival, and there is good reason. Park the inevitable comparison to ‘Ponyo’ and seek out this fun and fancy free animation.

Then spend the rest of the day trying to get that music out of your head.

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?

かぐや姫の物語 / The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a faithful interpretation of the classic Japanese fable The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest folklore tales in the history of the country. It is also Isao Takahata’s fifth film as director for Studio Ghibli, following the dark Grave of the Fireflies, the fun ecological adventure Pom Poko, the episodic comic strip interpretation My Neighbours the Yamadas and romantic drama Only Yesterday.

It tells the story of Princess Kaguya, a tiny girl found inside a stalk of bamboo by an aging bamboo cutter and his wife. She rapidly grows in size into a beautiful young lady, though she hides a secret for which she must, eventually, face the consequences.

The first thing that hits you when watching this film is the breathtaking quality of the animation techniques. Putting aside the great storyline, the film is worth watching just for the fact it is so beautiful to view. It really serves to remind us how effective 2D animation can be and we’re lucky that Studio Ghibli is yet to embrace 3D animation in the same way as Disney has, all but throwing away their heritage (though nontheless still churning out mostly excellent films).

My favourite scene involved the princess running away from her adopted home in panic and fear. At this point the art style subtly changed and became more expressive and less controlled, with darker greats and blacks filling the screen, and it was an intelligent way to channel her emotions into the visuals.

There is an immediacy of beauty in the animation style.

There is an immediacy of beauty in the animation style.

The film arrives in North America and Europe with a lot of endorsements, not least the nomination at this year’s Adademy Awards in the category of Best Animated Feature (it lost out to Big Hero 6). I usually prefer the Japanese voice-overs with subtitles and was lucky to find a screening with this option, but the English-language cast is nothing if not star-studded (including Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Mary Steenburgen and Beau Bridges). I look forward to being able to hear this version once it reaches home media later this year.

At 137 minutes it might be too long for most children but if youre looking for an intelligent way to entertain your family this weekend I heartily recommend this film.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is out now at selected cinemas across the UK.

Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, 2014)

Back in July when I initially viewed Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, I commented that it was a story that would have been better told in live action. The subject matter was very serious, there was nothing magical required of the story. It was simply an animation that didn’t need to be an animation.

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Giovanni’s Island, the new anime release from Mizuho Nishikubo, could have had a similar issue. It is a film set on Shikotan, a small Japanese island in 1945, which tells most of the premise in itself. We follow Young brothers Junpei and Kanya Senō as they deal with the island’s occupation by Russian soldiers, the upheaval of life as they know it, their integration with Russian culture at their school and Junpei’s romantic interest with Tanya, a Russian schoolgirl with a high-level military father.

It is overall a very depressing subject matter. By this I’m talking Grave of the Fireflies sort of level of depressing. There were many teary eyes as the film reached its conclusion, and that is testament to what a fantastic job Nishikubo has done here.

The animation style was actually quite intelligent and as the film went on there was a clear reason why animation was the medium of choice to tell this tale. There are three distinct styles on show: very realistic imagery is used for all the modern-day portions of the work; a more childlike design with juxtaposing dull greys are used for the sections covering 1945; and Junpei’s dreams and fantasies are more varied, with styles ranging from basic sketches to star-filled neon visual fireworks. The decision to use all three styles to represent a now much older Junpei’s memory of the events is a smart move, especially when we see the childlike times he spends with his brother overlaying a truly grim memory of the surrounding landscapes.

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One key theme throughout is the children’s obsessions with trains and railways, inspired by the brothers’ favourite book Night of the Galactic Railroad. According to the director this book used to be extremely popular but has since become just a phrase that is used. In fact, only 10 out of approximately 100 children who auditioned for the film were aware of the contents of the book. Perhaps the choice of this particular book was a comment that the younger generations of Japan are trying to move on from the painful memories suffered by their grandparents. Or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence and I’m reading too much into it.

Nishikubo has come in for criticism for the content of the film. Some Japanese critics thought he should have used the film to make more of a political statement. I tend to disagree. It really is an important and compelling story to simply tell the experience these two young children went through, without being judgemental of any of the parties. Neither the islanders nor the Russians are particularly singled out as being in the wrong. This allows us as viewers to make up our own minds, and it’s a much more balanced approach to allow the story to gain popularity and recognition in the world markets. In so many ways, this does a far better job than being highly favourable to the Japanese islanders, who went through terrible treatment no matter which way you look at it, and I’m sure this is the conclusion most will draw.

Giovanni’s Island has a limited release in UK cinemas in 2014, including the London Film Festival (10th October onwards), Scotland Loves Anime 2014 in Glasgow (12th October), Leeds Vue in the Night (12th October) and Edinburgh Filmhouse (18th October). It will subsequently be released on Ultimate Edition Blu-ray (limited to 1000 copies) and DVD on 8th December, and standard Blu-ray on 26th January 2015. More information on all these releases can be found on the official Giovanni’s Island website.

The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films.”

It’s that last line that really bothers me. That was Hayao Miyazaki talking, in 1978, about what animation means to him. It wasn’t a hard quote to locate. I only started reading his autobiography (of sorts), Starting Point, five minutes ago. It was right there in the third paragraph of the first page.

I don’t think there’s any denying that, when looking back at the career of one of the greatest and most imaginative directors of all time (and I’m not limiting that to animation either), he has created a body of work that surpassed that which would have been capable in any other medium. If you look at Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, even his work on Sherlock Hound The Detective, it’s difficult to see how any other medium mentioned above could have portrayed his story any better than in 2D animation.

So when I was sat there at the cinema watching The Wind Rises, even before I read that opening quote, I couldn’t help but wish for the magic to ooze back into play. I was with a fellow anime fan and another friend who was unaware of any of his output, and we all agreed that the film could have been better served as a live-action film. There wasn’t really any call for the animation. Yes, it looked visually stunning as usual, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

It’s sad that Miyazaki has chosen to finish his body of work with this film. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely not a terrible film and it won’t tarnish his reputation. The story is solid, the characters well-realised, the backdrops deep in detail. It’s just a bit of an anticlimax after a series of such amazing films.

One for the completists and die-hard fans, but if you’re new to Miyazaki, you’d be better to start with Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

The Wind Rises is out in cinemas in the UK now. Reviewed was the Japanese version with English subtitles.