A Whisker Away (2020), It’s a Wonderful Cat Life

You don’t have to be a big fan of anime to have heard of Sailor Moon, a show that I caught glimpses of as a child but that had an undeniable influence on anime as a whole. So when I saw that Netflix’s new anime film, A Whisker Away, was co-directed by one of the primary directors and subsequently storyboarder for the show, I was intrigued and eager to see how this film turned out. Going into it I really hadn’t heard or seen anything so I didn’t really have to go off about how good the film would be. Ultimately my experience with A Whisker Away was mixed, it starts off quite derivative, but really pulls it together in the final third, even if the ending is a bit limp and expected.

The plot focuses around Miyo, a young girl who is offered the chance to transform into a cat by wearing a mask sold to her by a Cat Mask Seller. Struggling with the separation of her parents, along with an unrequited love from her classmate, it causes Miyo to rely more and more on her ability to transform, before she eventually loses her ability to transform back after an emotionally charged day. Miyo is an unarguably insufferable character, she’s brash, abrasive and rude in a way that causes rifts between herself and her crush, Hinode, but this also rubs off on the audience too. But this is completely intentional to highlight the underpinning of the story about how Miyo has become this way due to bottling up her trauma over the years, and how her abrasive personality creates rifts and distance between her and her friends and family which is thus reflected to the audience through this abrasiveness.

But at 1 hour 40 minutes long, the build-up portion of the film felt way too long and overblown, the important ideas and concepts surrounding Miyo’s character were established pretty early on but this section dragged on longer than it really needed too without much avail. By the time I was at the halfway point, I was pretty resigned about the film’s quality, that was until the film switched track and introduced the fantasy realm of the Cat World. This was an introduction the film desperately needed as it utilises the film’s animation to evoke a strong emotional connection to the themes of the film and create an interesting climax. The pacing is much slicker in this part, all the different story threads are coming together in a way that is significantly more satisfying than the build-up in the first act. The film starts using the idea of body-swapping in an interesting way when Miyo’s stepmother’s cat takes over her body, which adds an interesting twist on the formula that allows for some really interesting emotional moments that deliver in their pay-off. 

The direction of the film is really interesting, the co-directors bring an interesting style to the film by contrasting the realism of the human world to the full fantasy of the Cat World. Similarly the co-directors utilise Miyo’s ability to switch forms in the first act as an interesting thematic tool, for Miyo her cat form is a release, she changes after school each day and spends the evening visiting Hinode, while it is presented as a release for Miyo it is also tinged in melancholy; in her cat form the world is full of wonder, the rooftops and nature filled back alleys create a sense of wonder despite their roots in the real world, but this is tainted with the idea that Miyo feels she has to escape from the world. While her enjoyment in her cat forms sometimes transfers over to her regular day-to-day life, the fact we rarely see Miyo enjoying her time as a human, or the fact that she often sees everyone outside of her one friend and Hinode as scarecrow’s get across this empty life to the audience. It’s animation styles like this that show a good sense of skill from the two co-directors, it reminded me of the X’s across the faces of characters in A Silent Voice, in that the visuals play into the themes of the film. Similarly the shot composition is brilliant, and captures some really fantastic imagery, especially the design of the Cat World which just radiates in beautiful imagery. Even the regular settings like the houses, the schools and the festivals all manage to create an almost effervescent quality that adds a lot of charm into the ordinary, reflecting the thematic nature of the story. 

This film is an interesting, if ultimately missed, opportunity by these two co-directors. The ideas, the visuals and the style are all clearly present and more than competent, but the film as a whole package just feels lacklustre. The issues with the pacing are very apparent as the first half of the film just keeps dragging on and on, and despite my enjoyment of the second half it is ultimately fairly derivative and paint-by-numbers; by the time the climax is in full swing it does end up feeling pretty predictable and expected. Similarly I would have liked a more fleshed out epilogue rather than the tiny snippets we get to see as the credits roll, but this isn’t a dealbreaker just something I think would have made me enjoy the film more. The voice cast is really good and delivering some wonderful performances that capture the essence of their characters and emotions throughout the film. This is for both the cats and the human characters as I think the voice actors for the cats in the film also bring a sense of jovil, fantasy charm to their performances. Despite my issues with this film it is a strong effort by the co-directors and the distribution by Netflix is promising for the future of anime films, and I would recommend giving it watch as it is a heartwarming and charming film. 

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