It’s easy to appreciate why Netflix’s latest anime import has been retitled “A Whisker Away” for its worldwide release. Not only is it a cute and well-earned pun on “Spirited Away,” it’s also a pretty succinct way of cobbling together this movie’s two major selling points, childhood fantasy and giant-eyed felines. On the other hand, the project’s amazingly expressive original title — literally translated from Japanese as “Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat” — really cuts to the heart of the matter.
The latest feature produced by emerging anime powerhouse Studio Colorido (“Penguin Highway”), Satô Jun’ichi and Shibayama Tomotaka’s sweet and vibrant original film introduces us to a tweenage schoolgirl whose exuberant personality belies her private feelings of abandonment. A refreshing change of pace from the kind of sullen and withdrawn characters who tend to anchor coming-of-age sagas about loneliness and unrequited love, Miyo (voiced by Shida Mirai) seems to be the kind of kid who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. Her classmates laugh and call her “Miss Ultra Gaga” right to her face, but that doesn’t stop Miyo from butt-checking her crush at full speed in the middle of the school hallway and loudly proclaiming her sneak attack to be an “unbelievably sexy” act of flirtation. Kento Hinode (Hanae Natsuki), the sullen and withdrawn kid in this story, just seems embarrassed by the attention.
But underneath her self-actualized veneer, Miyo is hurting. Living with her dad and his sweet girlfriend Kaoru since her mom gave up on the family some time ago, Miyo is indifferent to the affection that she gets at home, and desperate for the affection that she can’t seem to get outside of it. She wants to be loved unconditionally; she wants Kento to think of her devotion to him as cute instead of crazy; she wants to cuddle in his arms and warm his heart until it opens to her.
In other words, she wants to be Kento’s cat. And that’s exactly what the ultra-shady Mask Seller — a genie-like tabby cat whose cartoon obesity is hardly the only morbid thing about him — offers our heroine. He gives her a kitsune-inspired cat mask that allows Miyo to ignore her problems and turn into a blue-eyed kitten whenever she wants, and the girl is a bit too enchanted by the idea to ask if there’s a catch.
That’s actually the disorienting first scene of the movie, as “A Whisker Away” is told with a childlike disinterest in the line between fantasy and reality; Okada Mari’s script carefully seeds its rules over the course of the story (at least until it all goes haywire in the final act), but there’s always a pleasant sense that we’re in the thrall of Miyo’s overactive imagination and just trying to hang on as it runs away from her. But she really is turning into an adorable cat and sneaking off to see Kento, who names her “Taro” after his late dog and returns the puppy love that Miyo has always wanted from him.
This new bond is almost enough to distract Miyo from her problems at home (and Kento from the loss of his grandfather’s pottery studio and the greater economic burden of providing for his family), but these kids are about to learn that a nice dream isn’t always preferable to waking life, even with all its warts. “Lick your butt like a good cat and let Hinode take care of you!” the Mask Seller insists, but Miyo is surprised to find that it’s not so easy. It seems that licking your own butt may not be the panacea it’s cracked up to be.
Lushly animated in an unfussy style that defaults to summery realism but still allows for pockets of magic, “A Whisker Away” keeps things light and (older) kid-friendly even as it touches on the kind of raw emotional wounds that can lead both Miyo and Kento to confuse vulnerability for weakness. Viewers shouldn’t expect the acute emotional punch that might be packed inside a Shinkai Makoto film like “Your Name” — this movie is more interested in splitting the difference between Miyazaki Hayao and classic Disney, with the latter influence becoming especially clear after Kaoru’s housecat dons Miyo’s human mask and begins masquerading as a paw-licking person — but even at its most playful and scattered, the story is still more emotionally crystalline than its plot might suggest.
What “A Whisker Away” loses in terms of flow and legibility, it makes up for in its celebration of the fullness of human life; the ups and downs these characters feel can be hard to keep up with, but as the human and cat worlds blur together it becomes increasingly palpable that Miyo and Kento are learning to appreciate how the sweet only tastes so good because of the sour. If a climactic trip to the Ghibli-esque Cat Island (a feline cornucopia that’s built into a floating tree and replete with bars and bathhouses) is too frenetic for its own good — this frothy modern fable lacking the foundation it needs to support such a massive spike of world-building — it only makes it that much easier to appreciate how eager Miyo and Kento are to get back home and make the most of the love they’ve been given. Fun and winsome and always full of life, “A Whisker Away” naturally finds a way to land on its feet.
“A Whisker Away” is now streaming on Netflix.