2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
I don’t really have a lot to say about The Cat Returns by Hiroyuki Morita. It’s only the second Studio Ghibli film made by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata, and it feels like a lesser work.
There are certain elements that make it less like a Ghibli film and more like any other film made for children. The animation is the most noticeable. Studio Ghibli, regardless of the director, typically has a very naturalistic and fluid animation. This sets it apart from most anime in that the characters are drawn more or less proportionally. Movement is also remarkably fluid with a great many frames per second of film. Most animated films get by on less because it’s cheaper and you don’t need as many to get the effect across. But that’s what makes a Ghibli film a Ghibli film to me. The gorgeous animation.
That’s certainly a big part of what bothered me when watching My Neighbors the Yamadas a few weeks ago.
The Cat Returns has a rougher style. It looks and feels more like a standard anime drawn by any other studio. It’s less fluid and the characters have a more cartoonish appearance. It lacks the natural fluidness of a film like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke or any other Ghibli film. Even Whispers of the Heart retains this kind of natural fluidness.
It makes the film look shoddier, to be quite honest.
The other element is the pure zaniness of the film! This is pretty enjoyable but it’s pretty peculiar for what Studio Ghibli has done so far. We’ll see some more madcap zaniness when we discuss Ponyo, but, for now, this is a pretty odd thing to see.
It’s a much less serious film than most of what we’ve seen from Ghibli. Even though it involves kidnapping and forced marriages and forced transformations and even fights where the stakes are the characters lives, it never feels particularly serious.
Maybe it’s because The Baron, first seen in Whispers of the Heart, makes an appearance as a sort of swashbuckling gentleman bastard.
Maybe it’s because it’s the first Ghibli film to have an overt antagonist and he happens to be the king of the cats.
I mean, it’s all just a bit simpler, just a bit sillier, and just a bit shoddier than the rest of the films we’ve seen.
That doesn’t make it bad, mind. It’s a very enjoyable film. It’s whimsical and silly but it’s a fun ride.
I like the way this journey begins as well. Haru, our protagonist, is a typical middle school girl. She sees a cat crossing the street carrying a gift and a truck is hurdling towards it, ready to kill the poor peculiar creature.
Haru dashes forward and saves the cat.
Unexpectedly, the cat stands and brushes itself off, then speaks, and bows in thanks. Haru stares in awe and it runs away.
This leads to a series of misunderstandings and her eventual capture. See, the cat she saved was a prince of the Cat Kingdom, and the Cat King wants to thank her. Haru has gifts showered on her, but these gifts are mice, cat tails, and various other things that a human girl doesn’t want.
She confronts the cat messenger and shows her displeasure, which is disappointing to the cats. She also learns that she is to be the cat bride to the prince she saved and that they’ll pick her up that evening.
This is a very Miyazaki element. A coincidence or an accident or an act of good faith leads directly to troubles. It shows the gulf between humans and the world around them. But this is a far less serious film than Princess Mononoke, so the stakes remain relatively low, despite the very real danger.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to fear a bunch of purring cats?
She seeks help and this is what leads her to The Baron, who has a large roll in the film, but it feels odd to know that this spinoff or sort-of-sequel to Whispers of the Heart is so tonally different and also seemingly divorced from the original. In Whispers of the Heart we’re in a very real world setting. The Cat Returns is one of those open-a-door-to-a-new-reality kind of Ghibli films, which makes it more fun than Whispers of the Heart, but I don’t think it’s better.
I mean, really, I think this is among the weakest Studio Ghibli films. It’s not as bad as My Neighbors the Yamadas but it’s also not as good as Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
This is actually an interesting time in the history of the studio. While Miyazaki is putting out the best work he’s ever produced, the rest of the films are of a far weaker quality.
The Cat Returns, Tales from Earthsea, and Arrietty simply don’t measure up to what Miyazaki’s making or even what he has made before or what he will make after these films. There’s nothing wrong with any of these films, necessarily–though I have a lot of complicated thoughts about Earthsea, but we’ll get to that–but I think it shows that the passing of the baton from the older generation to the new generation hasn’t exactly be smooth.
It’s unfair, of course, to compare someone’s first film to a master at the peak of his career, but the fact that they’re coming out at the same time makes it hard not to acknowledge and be disappointed by the enormous gap between the quality of the films.
That being said, we still have a good film here. It’s fun and wild and silly. It’s not funny, really. It’s more absurd. So it doesn’t make you laugh, but it definitely feels like a comedy. A comedy that makes you smile as you embrace this absurd journey.
And maybe that’s the biggest difference between this and what’s come before. Had this been Takahata or Miyazaki, this wouldn’t feel like an absurd journey. It would feel vivid and alive and engrossing. They’d suck us into the scenario and when Haru’s life seems in danger, we’d feel that danger.
But that’s a difference in tone, and it’s not really Morita’s fault that he didn’t make a more serious film, because this is perfectly all right.
It won’t stick with you after it ends. It won’t breathe new life into what you thought a film for children could be or anything like that.
And it has a perfect ending, I think. It’s the kind of ending that shows the journey matters, but only to Haru. She’s grown up a bit. I don’t think it’s earned in the way Chihiro earns her transition from childhood to adulthood, but it’s a nice moment and a good way to leave off.
She’s changed, but not in an enormous way. But she’s matured and trusts herself more.
And life goes on. The world is the same but the way you look at it has evolved.
That’s what growing up is, yeah?
Next week we’re onto Howl’s Moving Castle.