by James Beckett,

A Whisker Away

A Whisker Away
Miyo Sasaki is going through the kind of troubles that teenagers all over can relate to. Nicknamed “Muge” by her judgmental peers (short for “Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic”) she has long been ostracized for her mother having walked out on the family years ago, and for all of the eccentric acting out Miyo has done since then. She only has one friend at school, her home life has become more complicated now that her father's girlfriend has moved in, and worst of all, she's suffering from a nearly fatal case of unrequited love, as she can't get the attention of the brusque Kento Hinode no matter how hard she tries. Miyo's everyday struggles are met with a decidedly otherworldly solution, however, when she meets an enigmatic cat spirit known as the Mask Seller. This tricksy feline offers Miyo a mask that he says will solve all of her problems by allowing her to transform into a cat, and soon enough, Miyo has finally earned Kento's love and affection by assuming the role of the adorable stray, Taro. Spells like these always come at a cost, however, and Miyo will soon have to discover what it truly means to love and be loved, and whether or not even the most magical of spells can untangle the complications of the human heart.

A Whisker Away is the kind of young adult fantasy that takes an age old question of "Wouldn't life be so much simpler as a pet?" and puts a romantic spin on it: "Wouldn't it be so much easier to get that guy you have a crush on to like you if you pretended to be a cat, since you could insert yourself into his most intimate and private moments while he rubs your belly and kisses you and stuff?" As you can imagine, this particular take on the hypotherical is where both the film's charms and its foibles come into sharp relief. Miyo, our heroine, is what you might call “a bit of a handful”, and in A Whisker Away's opening scenes it becomes clear why this rambunctious and socially awkward girl might be struggling in the romance department. Apparently, Miyo begins nearly every school day by leaping butt-first at her crush, Kento, in what she dubs her “Hinode Sunrise Attack”. This very obviously embarrasses and frustrates the boy, while Miyo obviously (and loudly) waxes romantic for all the world to hear. Her best friend Yori is trying to convince her to back off this incredibly hopeless prospect, but Miyo will not hear a word of it. To her, everyone else in the world that isn't Kento might as well be a faceless scarecrow (the movie actually uses this image as a visual metaphor multiple times, just in case the subtext wasn't clear enough).

So, when the Mask Seller burst into her life like a Ghibli antagonist by way of a Looney Tunes farce, you understand why Miyo would jump at the opportunity to disguise herself as a cat and insert herself into Kento's life. Kento, who is himself struggling with his strict mother's disdain towards his passion for traditional pottery, has shut himself off from most of the world, but he's more than happy to get cutesy and snuggly with a little stray kitten, and Miyo is happy to finally have Kento's attention. Watching A Whisker Away as an adult, this scenario raises all sorts of questions about privacy, consent, and personal boundaries that the movie never seems all that interested in resolving. My wife joined me and our own two cats in watching this latest Netflix Original, and could not help but be just a little disturbed by it. “Can you imagine how weird and awful it would be if we discovered that our two cats were actually people who were in love with us?” She makes a very good point. After all, its one thing for a cat to shove its butt in your face all of the time because it's a cat, and that's just what cats do. It would make for an altogether more horrifying dynamic if you discovered that your cat was secretly a classmate that was intent on seducing you so you could run away from home and start a new life.

It may not be entirely fair to project the burdens of logic and emotional realism onto what is clearly meant to be a treacly love story about a couple of awkward kids falling in love in an unconventional manner. If I'm being honest, the flimsy handling of the “cat transformation” half of the premise isn't my biggest complaint about the movie; rather, the script never comes together in a truly satisfying way because, in addition to the transformation stuff, there are a good deal of plot threads and story elements here that feel formless and half baked. There is a subplot involving the efforts of Kaoru, Miyo's would-be stepmother, to bond with Miyo that peters out before the movie is half done. Likewise, Yori's friendship with Miyo is played up in an extended flashback that gestures towards a relationship arc that never truly arrives. The only thing that Miyo really cares about is Kento, and while the movie makes a half-hearted attempt to cram in some moral lessons about how she needs to learn to be mindful of all of the people in her life that care about her, it gets lost in the third act's increasingly manic focus on action and wrapping up the plot.

Thankfully, while the movie's story never quite reaches for anything more nuanced or moving than, say, a Disney Channel Original Movie, it's got the visuals and production values to support its theatrical ambitions. Studio Colorido has been making a name for itself with its recent anime films, including Penguin Highway, and they, along with Toho Animation, have obviously put an incredible amount of work into A Whisker Away's lush backgrounds and lively character animation. There's one sequence where Miyo thrashes about in her room in a dizzying fit of romantic frenzy that feels wholly accurate to what it feels like to be head over heels in love as a youngster, and nearly every scene with the Mask Seller is a joy to behold, what with his cartoonish stretching and flying about. There is a third act plunge into the wholly fantastical world of mystical cat spirits that I wish packed a little more spark and pizazz, but I'll take Ghibli-lite over nothing, I suppose. Directors Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama and their crew are having a blast injecting Mari Okada's script with as much youthful buoyancy as possible. Much the same can be said for Mina Kubota's bubbly soundtrack, along with the contributions from pop-rock duo Yorushika.

The voice actors are up to the challenge, too. While Netflix's English Dub of the movie has been delayed due to complications brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic, viewers should not let subtitles scare them off. Miyo is such a self-centered and challenging teen that it could have been easy to write her off, but Mirai Shida's performance allows the character's charm and vivaciousness shine through, and she sells the more dramatic scenes equally well. Natsuki Hanae has what might be seen as a more difficult job playing Kento, who is basically the straight man to Miyo's antics, and he does what he can with the character's limited range. It's a good performance that elevates what would otherwise be a fairly mediocre character.

At the end of the day, I appreciate A Whisker Away more for what its trying to be than anything else. It is a gorgeously animated fairy tale that never quite manages to sell its romance, nor does it fully exude the magical whimsy experience. Like its heroine, the movie is clumsy and a little tone-deaf just as often as it is spirited and vibrant, though all it really wants is to be loved, and to make people smile. It did make me smile, more often than not, and if you like silly anime romances, or your just generally a fan of cats, it will probably make you smile too. Just don't think about it too hard.

Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+

+ A well-animated and cute love story that's steeped in equally cute cat folklore; excellent character animation sells the heightened experiences of being a teenager in love (and also of being a cat)
The clumsy script is never quite as emotionaly resonant or clever as it wants to be; the magical elements and locations of the latter half of the story feel like a missed opportunity

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Production Info:
Junichi Sato
Tomotaka Shibayama
Script: Mari Okada
Junichi Sato
Tomotaka Shibayama
Unit Director:
Junichi Sato
Tomotaka Shibayama
Yūji Shimizu
Music: Mina Kubota
Character Design: Yumi Ikeda

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Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu (movie)

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