Studio Ghibli is no stranger to heavy material; however, throughout its canon, the studio has proven to be just as adept at simple fantasy-adventure romps. These are family movies to the core that embrace the awe-inspiring cinematic magic that has given Hayao Miyazaki his name and status. The Cat Returns is far more modest in its ambitions than something like Spirited Away, but its charms and odd imagination make it feel very much at home among its peers.
The Cat Returns debuted in 2002 and is easily one of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked films. This is perhaps because of its strangeness. At a brisk 75-minute run time, The Cat Returns introduces us to an awkward teen named Haru, who saves a cat from being run over on the street and then is met with overwhelming gratitude by the underground community of talking and walking felines to whom the cat she saved happens to be royalty.
What makes the film stand out is undoubtedly its protagonist. Studio Ghibli has a strong history of complex, varied female leads, and Haru is one of their greatest. A little older than their usual pre-teen girls, Haru is tall and scrawny and walks with the gait of a girl not yet sure of herself. The film’s affecting opening reel is subtle in its realization of a lonely young woman desperate to discover something new and exciting in her life. When that something comes—in the eerie form of talking cats —she doesn’t know how to react.
The Cat Returns is slight and light, not earning the significance or weight of much of the rest of the Ghibli canon, but it’s also charming. It’s held together by the sympathies we feel for the beautifully drawn Haru, and an affection for the sweet relationship she builds with two outcast cats—Baron and Muta—who come to her rescue when things turn sinister.
Anybody who has seen Ghibli films will know there’s several things they can rely on the studio for: first is the quality of animation which is always beautiful to observe and soak in. Second is the music. I don’t know if there’s another working studio that’s able to produce such consistently gorgeous scores. Yuji Nomi was the composer on The Cat Returns, and we’re welcomed into the film by a soothing, honey sweet overture that’s somehow able to communicate to us the protagonist’s inner-life without a single word spoken. Before we even see Haru, it’s as if we know her.
The Cat Returns is just as strange as it sounds. It will make you wonder and gawk at the odd, fascinating imaginations of the minds behind Studio Ghibli and delight at the originality it brings to all its stories.
Edited by: Rachel Wagner