Anime, Film, Netflix

“A Whisker Away” is a sweet but bland tale.

I’m back, bitches! I got a brand-spanking new and beautiful laptop. I also can’t believe how light and fast it is. I love it. I apologize for missing so many weeks but my nearly seven year old laptop finally decided to give out. I could barely do anything on it.

Now, I don’t have an excuse not to write. And I can finally start getting stuff done.

Since those issues are all behind us -let’s examine the case of A Whisker Away. 

The film was originally intended for theatrical release in Japan, but we all know why that didn’t happen. The movie was produced by Studio Colorido, which is best known for Penguin Highway – but otherwise it doesn’t have a very large filmography.

This movie is a very sweet – albeit slightly creepy film about a middle school girl nicknamed Muge who has a crush on a boy named Hinode. At school, Muge is loud, outspoken, and very physically affectionate with the quiet, stoic Hinode,

He never really acknowledges her in any way and seems to go out of his way to avoid her. So, in order to spend time with him (and escape her home life), she dons a special mask which allows her to transform into a kitten, and visits him as “Taro.”

Hinode adores what he thinks is a stray kitten and shares his feelings about his home life and school. And Muge is happy just to spend time with him, though she longs to tell him the truth. But that’s not exactly something you can share.

Then, after one awful day – Muge decides to make the transformation permanent and gives her human face away to the Mask Seller. But she soon realizes the trade has more dire consequences than she realized and now she only has until sunset to get her face back. Or be stuck as a cat forever.

On the surface, it’s a pretty classical anime premise: a romance, cats, a Spirit World, and a bit of a struggle between the modern world and tradition. So how does it end up being so bland and unmemorable?

A Single Creepy Saving Grace

The one thing about A Whisker Away that really stood out to me are the visuals -so at the very least, the film is lovely to look at. But the scenery is pretty divided – when we’re in the real world, which is probably about 80% or more of the film are pretty generic. There isn’t a lot that makes the film stand out.

Considering this is a fantasy film, it would make sense if more of it took place on or around Cat Island – but the land only shows up towards the end and even then, it’s not a particularly unique landscape.

The best scenes include the one at the beginning- when Muge first meets the Mask Seller and is in this dark liminal in-between world at a very creepy cat-themed shrine.

And it’s always in scenes like this that I wonder if the characters have ever watched a movie before. Because making a deal with a giant talking cat seems like a terrible idea that a middle schooler should know.

Then again, we live in a reality where a world leader has completely disregarded scientists and general knowledge at least publicly but is also protecting himself from a highly contagious plague – just like politicians do in pretty much every apocalyptic piece of media ever made – so yeah, I’ll buy this.

And there’s an amazing scene where the characters travel to the Cat Island. In order to get there, the characters need to cross on a bridge. But only cats can see it, so when Hinode is on the bridge – he seems to be floating hundreds of feet in the sky. He can’t know where it leads or how narrow it is.

It’s brilliant going between a human and cat perspective. He also cannot see the Cat Island, even when he’s on it. So I really wish they spent far more time on this. Like imagine trying to watch a character interact with a whole land, he cannot see or really feel – and has to be guided by someone else. And it would be better if the audience couldn’t see it, when we’re seeing through his perspective.

What I love about it has how all the scenes are dealt with – they have a mystical, otherworldly feel to them and are set in very scenic and unique locations like the stairway up in the air that only cats can see – or the cat island itself that feels like it could float away from the mainland at any moment.

While the scenes where Muge as a cat are really wonderful – it’s really nice to get the slice of lifestyle narrative and animation style next to the more fantastical elements, it still doesn’t feel like the writers took full advantage of all the things she could do as a cat. Instead…she just stalks her crush.

Realistic but engaging

Despite finding her annoying and viewing her behavior as cringe worthy – I think Muge is a pretty realistic depiction of an eighth grade girl with family issues. I’d be acting out too if my mom had abandoned me as a little kid and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with my step-mother.

However, her stalkerish behavior and insistence on greeting Hinode every morning with her signature “Hinode Sunrise Hug” is uncomfortable to watch. It’s cringe worthy -extremely so and the simple fact she stalks him as a cat is treated as cute- and nobody really finds it weird. Or comments on how it’s weird.

The reveal that he has a crush on Muge is used to make her behavior justified. But it still rubs me the wrong way – because what if he hadn’t liked her?

Hinode is a bit better – he’s a shy, sensitive guy who wants to take over his grandfather’s failing pottery business. His mom isn’t crazy about that.  

And these are interesting character motivations.  Muge acts out because she feels invisible at home and Hinode wishes to be like her, but for the sake of his family, he remains stoic.

And this sucks because the other characters like Kinoko, Muge’s stepmother’s cat – who receives Muge’s human mask in order to spend more time with the stepmom and communicate with her. But Kinoko ends up regretting it when she realizes how much her cat form is missed,

There’s a lot to explore here regarding her relationship with humans, her desire to be human, and what she sacrifices along the way. I wish she had played a larger role and that her desire to be human was shown earlier in the film.

Failure to Launch

Despite being focused on an interesting premise – the movie doesn’t exactly do a lot with it or fully embrace these implications.

There’s about five minutes towards the climax of the film where we do get to meet some cats who were previously human – but they never really get characterized as individuals, and we never really get what motivated them to make the change.

It feels so wasted. Why did these people give up their humanity? Do they regret it? Do they spend their time in the cat island? Do they ever go back down to the human world for funsies? What other humans that we’ve seen are cats? Are there a lot of these people?

I have to know. 

There’s so much left to explore.

It never feels like the more intimate details get fleshed out – in Spirited Away we don’t get to the whole spirit world, but we get an excellent idea of how the bathhouse works and what the life is like there. We spend too much time in the human world that we never understand the spirit world in this film.

So, it doesn’t work. And we’re never given a good enough reason as to why the cat-humans we see wanted to become cats so desperately. And there’s NO tension to the idea that Muge may remain a cat. 

And the Island of Cats doesn’t feel like a good place of escapism. It doesn’t quite stand out and there’s nothing there that would entice one to stay there – nor is it a motivation to remain a cat. It’s just a bunch of restaurants serving foods cats like -there’s not even like a freaking catnip arboretum or a place where they can chase mice to their heart’s content.

Wouldn’t it be great if this place was actually like a cat haven. The island also doesn’t work as foil or anything directly related to the conflict and development of the characters. Like there’s nothing there that directly challenges their view of the world and forces them to make important decisions regarding the character development within the themes of the narrative.

It’s just kind of a race against the clock.

Ghibli inspiration

I think one issue with this film and many other fantasy coming of age anime films is that they keep trying to mimic that “Ghibli formula.” 

Unlike Disney films, Ghibli films don’t have a clear cut formula so it’s harder to tell where they went wrong. The failure behind many Disney mock busters is pretty clear – they skimped on lots of things: musical talent, animators, voice actors and simply assumed having a musical princess love story was enough.

Part of the issue, I think, is that they always make the relationship between the two leads romantic. There’s no ambiguity. And these kids are like 14 – these aren’t relationships that will last. In Ghibli films, the relationship is never purely romantic. It’s never just a childhood crush or butterflies in the stomach.

As Miyazaki once said, I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where they two mutually inspire each other to live– if I’ m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.

Because so many of these Ghibli-inspired films are focused on a romantic relationship between 13-year-olds, they feel shallow, rushed and unearned.

The romance works in more explicitly romantic films like ride “Ride Your Wave,” because not only are the characters older, but we get to see their relationship development. They weren’t just boyfriend and girlfriend, they had a relationship that was based on love, respect, common values and laughter. 

The relationship and the tragic loss of it is the driving focus on the film.

But in A Whisker Away –we don’t really get to see the two protagonists actually interact as themselves all that much and most of the time – when they do – the feelings between the two don’t come off as mutual and important.

They’re immature, silly kids. 

I don’t really believe Hinode likes Muge as much as the film says. We don’t even really understand why she likes him in the first place, so the romance doesn’t even make a lot of sense. They don’t exactly have anything in common, so in the end it just didn’t come off as an earned or satisfying ending.

The film is pretty forgettable – I had to look up the names for literally all the characters involved because I couldn’t remember a single one of them. I probably wouldn’t be able to pick any of the characters out of line up. 

It’s just not engaging enough. A note to all anime film directors and writers -stop trying to mimic Ghibli. Make your own thing. Make your own stories. There’s a demand out there for different kinds of stories – get creative.

And that’s the scoop.

….

Score: 5/10

….

Info

Year of release: 2020

Length: 104 minutes

Directors: Junichi Sato, Tomotaka Shibayama

Writer: Mari Okada

Voice Actors: Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Hiroaki Ogi

If you liked this review, please read: “Ride Your Wave” is the anime romance we need right now

Please consider donating to one of the many Black Lives Matter funds: https://nymag.com/strategist/article/where-to-donate-for-black-lives-matter.html

1 thought on ““A Whisker Away” is a sweet but bland tale.”

  1. I’m not sure that knowing what motivated the former humans to become cats reveals anything important to the story and is not even the point. They’re in the story to show that the mask-seller is a trickster. They were tricked.

Leave a Reply