Let's face it, Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san are getting on in years. Already Miyazaki-san has hinted at retirement, until his infectious enthusiasm gets the better of him and he comes back with yet another great idea. Or is it that he is worried about the future of the studio when the two old masters are no longer with us (touch wood that day is very far off)? Well on this evidence he shouldn't worry too much, as Hiroyuki Morita seems to be one of their natural, spiritual successors. It was not on a whim that Miyazaki-san took this young man to a fine restaurant and told him that he had been promoted to director of his own project, and that what was once intended to be a 45 minute short was going to be a full-on cinematic Ghibli release.
And for me, a long time fan of the studio, that faith was well placed. I've no doubt you have read some of The Cat Returns' 3-4 star reviews, with their unfair comparisons to the work of Miyazaki and Takahata at the heart? Well I'm going to ask you to ignore them. Let this work be judged on its own merit. I can assure you, do that and you will find that elusive, enchanting charm that is present in Ghibli's more famous titles. As regards that other-worldly escapism feeling, it is apparent in this movie far more than even some of Miyazaki-san's own work. Haru's transitions into the world of the Cats, both at 'The Cat Bureau' location and then onto the 'Cat Kingdom' are two of the most magical scenes across the entire Ghibli catalogue...for me they are up there with Mei's first meeting of Totoro in every other Ghibli fan's favourite movie, 'My Neighbour Totoro'. I have read other reviewers comments saying that this film has little of the magic of a Miyazaki movie, well I couldn't disagree more. It is in my top five Ghibli movies... and I think the magic is there in spades.
The cat characters are so wonderfully anthropomorphised. I'm a 100% dog person myself... but I totally fell in love with these feline characters. Their humour and charm comes at you in bucket-loads. Haru, too, is a cleverly crafted, well thought-out character. She is an everywoman...a girl next door. She is a charming, good natured teenager trying to do her best at school, maintaining friendships and is starting to cast an admiring glance at the boys... but is also wondering if this is all there is to her life. As I said, an everywoman. So in the wonderful scene in the movie where she wonders if she'll fit in better with the cats world, you really do empathise with her. Surely we've all felt that there should be "more than this"? Well for Haru, at least, there is.
As Haru makes her way to school one ordinary morning, she happens to save the life of a cat, by knocking him out of the way of an oncoming van. Not an ordinary cat, I should add, but none other than Prince Lune himself... heir to the throne of The Cat Kingdom. So when the grateful prince gets up from the road he so nearly lost his life on, dusts himself off and thanks Haru, she is totally bewildered. I will not delve too much further into the story for you other than to say that Prince Lune's father's wish to appropriately thank Haru is the main theme of the movie... and the start of this ordinary girl's wonderful adventure.
Just please, please let this film stand on its own merit. It is silly to compare the work of a rookie director to the two old Ghibli masters. When you do, you will fall head over heels in love with The Cat Returns. And please don't go expecting a hidden, underlying message...as other than "be true to yourself", there isn't one. However, not all of Ghibli's movies do have a hidden or allegorical meaning. It's just that since Spirited Away, some reviewers think there should be. Did My Neighbour Totoro have a hidden, underlying message? Of course it never... it is, at the end of the day, a movie for kids. A movie so beautifully crafted and animated, with characters so well thought out that they appeal to everyone's inner child, that even adults can't help but fall in love with the movie. And so it is for The Cat Returns. Ghibli is a studio that makes movies for children... and we're just along for the ride. It would pay some reviewers intent on finding hidden meanings to remember that.
Trust me... give The Cat Returns a fair chance, and you just might discover an all-time classic. I know I have. And when the dreaded day of Miyazaki-san's retirement truly *does* arrive, I for one will be happy that the studio has some talented new blood waiting in the wings.