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A Whisker Away (2020)

Everybody wants to be a cat, proclaimed Scatman Crothers fifty years ago in Disney’s Aristocats. But that was Sherman Brothers wordplay, not a serious sentiment. A Whisker Away foregrounds someone so miserable as a human that she’d rather be an animal, Following a CG-heavy musical disaster last year, viewers may be wary of any film purporting to turn humans into felines – though that’s not what the anime A Whisker Away, coming to Netflix on Thursday, June 18, is really about. Despite what you’d think glancing at the trailer, this isn’t a family cartoon, being very much for teenagers.

Any resemblance between Whisker and the slight Ghibli film A Cat Returns is entirely superficial (and Whisker’s much better). True, both films involve schoolgirls turning into cats. In Whisker, the girl is Miyo, nicknamed Muge. She’s her school’s goofball, gambolling around the playground, hitting shamelessly on the boy she likes, to her friends’ embarrassment and her enemies’ OMG contempt. Except we’ve seen a different face of Miyo in the pre-title prologue – alienated from her divorced parents, running into the shadows of a summer festival, wishing the damn world would end. Then between the lines of lanterns, Miyo meets a stranger with a furry face and a stall of cat masks, who invites her to try one on.

The upshot is Miyo can use the mask to become a cat whenever she wants. The film skips the trial-and-error tomfoolery that could have taken half the running time, back in the days of Disney’s Shaggy Dog (sixty years ago). Nor is there any ambiguous play with this being maybe just the protagonist’s fantasy, as in many anime or the Jacques Torneur classic The Cat People. No, Miyo can turn into a cat, and has a very specific purpose in doing so. The boy she likes at school, Hinode, may treat her mostly as an embarrassment whenever she throws herself at him… but when Miyo’s in cat form, and she pads up to him, he loves her. Having her furry tummy rubbed by her favourite boy, while he confides all his feelings in her… Isn’t it paradise?

It’s a well-conceived premise, comically daft, yet connecting with far sadder teen emotions. After the repentant bully of A Silent Voice, here we have another atypical protagonist, a frighteningly needy girl stalker, a classroom fool fulfilling every cliché of how clowns look when they’re not laughing. Like other anime teen fantasies – for example, Your Name and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – Whisker offers its young lead a magic alternate perspective, giving Miyo a higher vantage than her peers and the prospect of controlling her frustrating life.

And as in those films, things go wrong fast. Anime typically involves huge, often infuriating tonal shifts, but Whisker’s very nimble in leaping comedy and drama. A shocking fight breaks out between two characters, like something in Silent Voice, but then a goofy soundtrack strikes up and we realise we’re watching through Miyo’s cruelly amused cat eyes. An even uglier bullying scene is deflected by slapstick when someone gets a desk toppled onto him, then kicked again for luck. Miyo’s expressions in the same scene – a frozen, terrified smile as her eyes try to escape their sockets – is in a grand tradition of anime animation, the emotionally dysfunctional teen.

Such moments make the film easily engaging, though there are lapses in pace in the early scenes, while the last act is only partially successful. The later action strives for a resolution that’s not just rote, largely by finding ways to put the protagonists on the same physical level as they fight their final battles. Still, you’re over-reminded of countless other fantasy films (not just anime) which ended in broadly similar ways, and some climactic moments feel stodgily unexciting when the stakes are supposedly highest.

Still, Whisker triumphantly reminds us that writers can be auteurs too. The (original) screenplay is by Mari Okada, who’s written on innumerable TV anime through two decades but whose sole director credit remains the 2018 film Maquia. Whisker, though, feels far closer to an Okada-written TV series such as Anohana, available on Netflix and Blu-ray. That, too, had a fantasy framework (a boy is visited by his childhood friend’s ghost) for a mostly naturalistic drama of repressed teen feelings in collision. Whisker also gets spice from the fact that its story that would be unbearably creepy if the leads’ genders were switched – imagine a boy exhibiting Miyo’s clingy behaviour. In that way, the film’s comparable to a very different anime teen-drama film, 2018’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas.

Whisker’s director is Junichi Sato, best known for his work on vintage girls’ fantasy anime including the ballet-themed Princess Tutu and portions of Sailor Moon. Animation is by the relatively young Studio Colorido, known for the merry waddle of Penguin Highway, though the studio has also made outstanding TV commercials in the form of mini-drama, available here. Those commercials are set entirely in the real world, which ultimately proves to be the most substantial setting for Whisker too. Perhaps it should have stayed there entirely.

The film was originally meant to open in Japanese cinemas this month, but is being given a simultaneous global release on Netflix due to the coronavirus situation.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Despite a few lapses, this is an accomplished fantasy-tinged teen drama. Just don’t expect light family fare like The Aristocats or The Cat Returns.

*Pre-release Screener provided by Netflix*

Andrew Osmond is the author of the book on the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, published by Arrow Books. He’s also a journalist specialising in animation and has a website at anime-etc.net