A Whisker Away

Dept. of Escapist Fantasies


I think I prefer this movie’s original title. A Whisker Away, with its deliberate allusion to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, gives away far too much. In that, if you’re familiar with the Studio Ghibli classic, you may have some idea where all of this is going. The original Japanese, 泣きたい私は猫をかぶる, which translates to Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat, is unadorned and literal, and the perfect introduction to this delightful little fable.

The latest feature from up-and-comers Studio Colorido (if you haven’t already seen their eccentric and charming Penguin Highway, you really should), A Whisker Away tells the story of middle-schooler Miyo, a precocious young girl who uses her ebullient personality to hide a deep sense of sadness and feelings of abandonment.

It is a public face that she’s crafted for herself. So much so that her schoolmates call it – and her – Muge, which is short for “Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic.” A nickname she leans into and wears as a badge of honour, but is, in fact, all a front. A thin veil that covers her inability to accept kindness or connect in a real way with those around her.

Miyo is caught between her inconstant mother and her father’s new wife. She is naively in love with Hinode, her sullen and withdrawn classmate, who pays her no attention whatsoever. Oh, and she spends most of her days and nights wandering the city as a cat. That’s right. A cat.

In a blink and you’ll miss it moment at the beginning of the movie, Miyo is given the ability to transform into a cat by a shady mask seller. He is the villain of the piece. A tubby tabby who gives out masks, trades in souls, and steals human’s faces. (It’s not quite as nightmarish as it sounds.) His wide smile belies his subtle manipulations. And he feeds Miyo’s desire to escape her life.

All Miyo wants is to be loved unconditionally, and she is convinced that the only way to get Hinode’s attention is by being a cat. And it works. At least until the fantasy becomes more than she bargained for.

A Whisker Away is quaint and well-meaning. It is contemplative. A wholesome fantasy anchored around a love story that is so sincere in its devotion that you can’t help but get caught up in it. It is so earnest in capturing childhood infatuation that it almost feels out of step with today’s sensibilities. It’s a welcome throwback.

Where the movie really shines, however, is in the way it fleshes out its characters. Hinode, who wants to be a potter like his grandfather, is unable to share this ambition with his mother. Miyo is affectionate and flighty one moment, and petulant and prickly the next. (You know, kinda like a cat!) Their home lives are layered and nuanced. Their schoolmates aren’t just hackneyed archetypes used as foils for our protagonists.

There is also magic and whimsey here. The way Mari Okada’s screenplay slowly unfurls the mechanics of this movie is brilliant. At no point does she dump large chunks of exposition on us. We experience every action and consequence right alongside these characters. We learn the rules of this world when they do. It is incredibly effective, and the complications of plot never once overwhelm the emotion of the story.

A Whisker Away, with its aestival aesthetic, is also just beautiful to look at. The animation is simple and unfussy, yet tactile and realistic. You see it in the way the characters move. You feel it whenever the story dives into raw psychological territory.

A Whisker Away doesn’t quite hit the whimsical high notes of Studio Ghibli or have the same keen sense of romance of something like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. (Then again, very few things do.) But it delivers by being lively and energetic, and most of all, by having a confident worldview.

There’s something here for you, irrespective of whether you’re just a casual follower of the genre or an anime super-fan. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who really hate cats.

A Whisker Away
104 minutes
Directors: Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama
Writer: Mari Okada
Cast: Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Hiroaki Ogi, Kōichi Yamadera, Ayako Kawasumi, Daisuke Namikawa, Kenshō Ono, Minako Kotobuki, Sayaka Ohara, Susumu Chiba, Eri Kitamura, Shin-ichiro Miki, Rei Sakuma, Oolongta Yoshida, and Fukushi Ochiai

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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