The American Cinematheque’s First Annual Anime Festival opened in Hollywood at the Egyptian Theatre over the weekend to a rainstorm, sold out houses and the U.S. premiere of the latest Studio Ghibli feature Neko no Ongaeshi (The Cat Returns). Conceived, according to director Hiroyuki Morita, (in attendance along with producer Nozomu Takahashi) as a short film, The Cat Returns evolved into a full-length movie and a major studio project because of its marvelously zany storyline and character studies.
Based on the manga Baron, Neko no Dansyaku (The Cat Baron) by Aoi Hiiragi, The Cat Returns features the dapper and mysterious Baron and his grumpy but John Goodman-esque sidekick, the white cat Muta. Studio Ghibli fans will remember the Baron and his counterpart from their intriguing appearance in Mimo wo sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart, 1995).
In The Cat Returns, the duo assists a teenage girl named Haru with her perplexing dilemma, the gift of a marriage proposal to Luna, the prince of the Kingdom of Cats. Haru saved the prince, whom she mistook for a normal cat, when he walked into traffic and was almost run over. Now she is to be taken by the servants of the Cat King to their mysterious kingdom and wedded.
The journey to gain Haru’s freedom, and thus her own self-esteem (Haru is a bit lazy; more of a dreamer than a doer.), takes the threesome into an Alice in Wonderland-world that is both slightly frightening and extraordinarily ridiculous. In the Cat Kingdom, serf cats live an idyllic but zombie-like life, devoid of decision-making or responsibility. In the castle, life for both servants and royalty revolves around the whims of the childlike Cat King, who knows nothing of ruling and even less about the strange and comical “technologies” his minions have developed to protect the portal back to the real world.
Haru’s appearance shakes everything up – ultimately even the ground – when the last trap is triggered protecting the exit home. Haru, the Baron and Muta, of course still escape bringing home Haru’s new-found sense of self and leaving the Cat Kingdom to rebuild itself.
Although The Cat Returns includes little of the magical realism Studio Ghibli films are known for, specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) and Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke), Miyazaki’s stamp is clearly visible. If anything Morita’s movie is more of a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road To” picture than an epic: simple adventure plot, outlandish settings, lots of comedy, and characters you want to go adventuring with again.
During the Q&A following the screening, director Morita said that he was exceedingly relieved to hear laughter in the audience. “I thought someone might have paid you,” he quipped, explaining that he doubted his brand of humor would translate to an American audience. Happily, rain or no rain, nothing could dampen the Festival audience’s reaction. From the moment cats began to walk on their hind legs and act like characters from the best slapstick acts of all time, they were hooked.
As to the future of another Baron movie, producer Takahashi was doubtful explaining that Mr. Miyazaki has yet to revisit any of his other popular characters with sequels. When the audience groaned in disappointment, he amended this answer with a shrug, a smile and a more hopeful “but anything is possible.”
The Cat Returns took three years to make, employed some 300 animators, and as yet, has no U.S. distributor.
Find more information on the L.A. Anime Fest here: http://www.animationmagazine.net/article.php?article_id=394