Cat Returns Again. A Look at the Surprise Sequel to The Cat Returns

Studio Ghibli is a world-renowned Japanese animation studio founded in 1985 by acclaimed directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki. The studio is known for producing imaginative, high-quality animated feature films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, many of which were directed by Miyazaki.

Hayao Miyazaki is considered one of the most influential animators and helped bring anime to mainstream international audiences. He co-founded Studio Ghibli after success with films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. Revered as a master storyteller, Miyazaki instills his films with strong environmentalist messages and complex, well-developed characters. He announced his retirement in 2013 but later returned with the Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises in 2014.

In the late 1990s, Studio Ghibli was commissioned to create a short film featuring cats, which eventually became the whimsical and fantastical feature film The Cat Returns. Although Miyazaki did not directly handle its direction, his thematic touches and high production values are visible throughout the movie.

What is The Cat Returns?

The Cat Returns is a 2002 Japanese animated fantasy film directed by Hiroyuki Morita. It was released on July 20, 2002 by Studio Ghibli, the acclaimed animation studio behind such films as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.

According to Wikipedia, The Cat Returns was Hiroyuki Morita’s first and only film as director for Studio Ghibli. It was based on the manga Baron: The Cat Returns by Aoi Hiiragi.

The film tells the story of Haru, an awkward schoolgirl who saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat turns out to be the prince of the magical Cat Kingdom, and as thanks Haru is showered with gifts and proposed to by the Cat King. Not wanting to marry a cat, Haru tries to find a way out of the situation with the help of a suave cat figurine named Baron and his friends.

Connection to Whisper of the Heart

The Cat Returns has a close connection to the Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart. Though not a direct sequel, The Cat Returns is inspired by and based on the fantasy scenes in Whisper of the Heart depicting the story of The Cat Baron written by the character Shizuku. In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku imagines her own version of The Cat Baron tale which follows a cat statuette coming to life as a cat kingdom prince. This serves as the basis for The Cat Returns, which expands on the cat kingdom idea with an original story and new characters like Haru.

the cat returns film poster

Though The Cat Returns stands alone as its own film, attentive viewers will notice the similarities to the brief Cat Baron sequences in Whisper of the Heart. Director Hiroyuki Morita set out to bring Shizuku’s fantasy writing to life on screen with a new story while retaining the core idea of a normal girl entering a secret world of cats. Fans of Whisper of the Heart often look for connections between the two films, such as the cameo appearance of a cat statue resembling the one from Whisper of the Heart seen in the Cat Kingdom. While not a direct sequel, The Cat Returns succeeds in realizing the imagination of Shizuku’s story in a fully fleshed out film.

Story and characters

The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru, an ordinary high school student who saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat turns out to be Prince Lune, the cat prince. In gratitude, the cats shower Haru with gifts, including cat-shaped cookies. Haru is brought to the Cat Kingdom, where the Cat King offers to marry her to Lune. Wanting to return to her normal life, Haru seeks help from the Baron and his associates to escape the Cat Kingdom.

The main characters include:

  • Haru – The main protagonist, an ordinary high school girl who is kind to animals.
  • Prince Lune – A cat prince who tries to help Haru escape the Cat Kingdom after she saves his life.
  • Cat King – The ruler of the Cat Kingdom who attempts to force Haru to marry Prince Lune.
  • Baron – A living cat figurine who helps Haru return to her world.
  • Muta – Another living cat figurine, Baron’s friend who reluctantly helps rescue Haru.

The Cat Returns is a lighthearted fantasy about the importance of being true to oneself. Haru’s compassionate spirit gets her into trouble, but with the help of new friends, she is able to stay true to who she is. Though the cats have good intentions, they try to force their way of life onto Haru without considering what she wants. Ultimately, Haru manages to find her own way home.

haru with baron and muta

Art and animation style

The Cat Returns features a distinctly different visual style compared to many other Studio Ghibli films. As noted in an article on The Other Side of Animation, the movie utilizes an anime-inspired aesthetic with very fluid and exaggerated character movements (Source). The backgrounds are painterly and detailed, creating a storybook-like quality. According to Character Design References, the film combines traditional hand-drawn animation with some CGI elements, allowing for creative visual sequences like the cat kingdom’s labyrinthine streets (Source).

The cat characters themselves are stylized with large heads, small bodies, and minimal detailing. This simplicity allows for fluid and expressive character animation. The film’s aesthetic suits the lighthearted, whimsical nature of the story. While subdued compared to many Ghibli films, the visuals help bring the cat kingdom to life through imaginative character designs and background art.

Critical reception

The Cat Returns received generally positive reviews from critics. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 89% based on 109 reviews, with an average rating of 7.2/10. The site’s critical consensus states, “The Cat Returns offers a delightfully entertaining take on classic fairy tale themes that will appeal to the entire family.”

On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on 27 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews.”

A.O. Scott of the New York Times praised the film’s “hip but innocent sensibility” and wrote that while less complex than some other Studio Ghibli films, it “succeeds on its own simple but enchanting terms.” Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars, calling it “the most innocent and charming of the recent wave of anime.”

The Cat Returns was moderately successful at the box office, earning around $65 million worldwide against a budget of $19 million. While not matching earlier Ghibli hits like Spirited Away, it performed respectably for a more modestly budgeted production.

Sequel or spin-off debate

There has been some debate over whether The Cat Returns should be considered a direct sequel to Whisper of the Heart, or more of a spin-off film set in the same universe. There are arguments on both sides:

Arguments for it being a sequel:

comparison of animation styles between the two films

  • It features the same character of Baron from Whisper of the Heart, who was a prominent character in that film.
  • The two films were directed and written by the same core creative team at Studio Ghibli, suggesting an intentional connection.
  • There are direct references to scenes and locations from Whisper of the Heart, like the antique shop.
  • The films share very similar animation styles and a focus on fantasy elements entering the real world.

Arguments for it being a spin-off:

  • It features an entirely different main character and storyline from Whisper of the Heart.
  • Baron is the only character who appears in both films.
  • The events don’t directly follow on from each other chronologically.
  • The tone and themes differ significantly between the two films.

Overall there is no definitive answer, but strong cases can be made either way. It likely falls somewhere in a gray area between sequel and spin-off.

Connections to other Ghibli films

The Cat Returns shares some similarities with other beloved Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Though the tone and story are quite different, there are a few comparable elements:

In Spirited Away, the main character Chihiro enters a magical spirit world and goes on a journey to rescue her parents after they are turned into pigs. She encounters many strange spirits and creatures along the way. Similarly, in

, Haru enters the magical world of cats after saving one who happened to be a prince. She ends up on an adventure to escape being forced into marriage.

spirited away film poster

Both films feature a young female protagonist who ends up in a unfamiliar, fantastical setting. They have to navigate their way back home while meeting colorful characters. However, The Cat Returns has a much more lighthearted and comedic tone compared to the often darker and more serious Spirited Away.

My Neighbor Totoro also has some parallels in its story of two young sisters who discover magical creatures near their home. The Cat King’s kingdom with its anthropomorphic inhabitants evokes the whimsy of Totoro’s forest filled with soot spirits. However, The Cat Returns focuses solely on the cat world while Totoro integrates fantasy elements into a realistic setting.

So while not direct sequels or telling the exact same story, The Cat Returns shares Ghibli’s signature touch of fantasy, imagination, and endearing characters. Fans of those films are likely to appreciate and enjoy this underrated gem.

Legacy and influence

Though initially overshadowed by Spirited Away and other Ghibli films, The Cat Returns has developed a strong cult following over the years. Fans on Reddit have discussed the lasting impact of The Cat Returns’ whimsical cat world and its connection to Whisper of the Heart. The film is known for its creative character designs and fun, lighthearted tone. While some find the story simplistic, The Cat Returns is appreciated for immersing viewers in Ghibli’s signature magical realism style.

The Cat Returns has also influenced various later anime through its creative use of talking cat characters. Series like Chi’s Sweet Home and My Roommate is a Cat have continued the tradition of exploring feline perspectives. Though not Ghibli’s most famous film, The Cat Returns demonstrates the studio’s ability to build endearing worlds around even unconventional subjects like cats.

Conclusion

In summary, while The Cat Returns is not a direct sequel to Whisper of the Heart, the two films have an undeniable connection through the Baron cat character and fantasy themes. The Cat Returns stands on its own with a creative story, fun characters, and beautiful Ghibli animation. Though considered more of a spin-off than sequel by many, The Cat Returns continues to delight viewers and maintains an enduring popularity alongside other Ghibli classics. Its whimsical cat world expands on ideas from Whisper of the Heart, providing a further glimpse into the imagination of young Shizuku. The Cat Returns may not be a sequel in the traditional sense, but serves as a spiritual successor that shares DNA with its predecessor while also bringing something new to the table.

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