The Cat Returns (2002) by Hiroyuki Morita

Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is typical schoolgirl who lives with her mother. One day while she is on her way home with a friend, they spot an unusual looking cat carrying a small present across the road. The cat is about to be hit by a truck before Haru darts across the road, scooping the cat up in her lacrosse stick thereby saving it’s life. As she turns to check if the cat is ok, she sees it standing on two legs and dusting itself down before telling her it is grateful for her saving his life. Later that night Haru is visited by the King of Cats and his large entourage who arrive outside her house to offer their gratitude and to say that they will repay her. She is later told by a cat that they wish her to marry their Prince, the cat whose life she saved, and must come with them to the cat kingdom. However, a mysterious voice tells her to look for the Cat Bureau. Following a white cat, Mutu (Tetsu Watanabe), to the Cat Bureau, she is greeted by the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and Toto (Yosuke Saito) a crow who acts as a gargoyle for their town. They warn her against the Kingdom of Cats, but Haru is soon whisked away and must attempt to escape with the help of Mutu, Toto and the Baron.

“The Cat Returns” is based on a manga of the same name by Aoi Hiiragi. The idea of discovering a secret world and being whisked away, of unwilling princesses, near-sighted rulers, and dashing heroes coming to the rescue, are all common tropes of the genre. However, having cats be the central focus of the drama transforms this typical fantasy story into something magical. There is something enigmatic about cats, often be seen lounging or padding around the streets, and this film takes the idea that they are living a secret life when they are not being watched and runs with it. Early in the film Haru’s mother tells her that Haru used to say that she could talk to cats. It is this sort of childhood whimsy that the film captures brilliantly. It highlights the power of imagination and creativity that abounds in our youth, but that most people lose as they grow older. As well as this celebration of imagination the film is also a coming-of-age story for Haru. She is a girl lost in a dream world. Although she has a strong relationship with her best friend, her only other obsession is with a boy at her school (understandable at that age). When she is whisked away and forced into a marriage she does not want, she comes to realise that in fact her own wishes should not need to be so narrowly defined. Visiting the kingdom of the cats, whether this is taken literally or as a flight of fancy, shows her just how wide the world really is and that only she can decide what her future holds. By the end of the film she is transformed into a character who is full of confidence and a desire to explore the world on her terms.

The artwork and animation is suited to the fantasy plot. Early in the film we get a great sense of the city, using depth of action to create the sense of a fully realised environment as traffic and pedestrians fill the streets and pavements. When the film heads into the world of the cats there is a shift to a much simpler style. There are some nice touches such as the cat palace being decorated with fish. The designs of the cats are also great, with a unique style for all the central characters. Another fun detail showing the Chinese and Egyptian cats gathered at the king’s court. The King of the Cats is a joy every time he is on screen, with his odd-eyes and tufted fur. A fun film for children and cat lovers, with lots of heart and a plot that never lets up in humour and action.  

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (2018) by Kyohei Fujimura

9-year old Shota (Kokoro Terada) is unaware of what his father Takashi (Hiroshi Tanahashi) does for a living, but he admires him for being strong and kind-hearted. One day he sneaks out of his house, climbing into the back of the family car to follow his dad to work. At first believing he is involved in some shady business, seeing him with two other burly men in an alley way exchanging greetings and cash, he soon discovers that his father is in fact a wrestler. As “Cockroach Mask” he plays the role of heel to the heroic wrestlers, such as “Dragon George” (Kazuchika Okada). Shota is shocked and disappointed that his father is a figure of hate, believed to be weak and untrustworthy by the crowd, constantly using underhand tactics in his fights, booed and reviled by the audience. Little does he know that his father was once the legendary wrestling champion Takashi Omura, whose career was cut short after suffering a knee injury. Shota must come to terms with his father’s new role, learning to love him even as the bad guy. Meanwhile, journalist and wrestling obsessive Michiko (Riisa Naka) is busy writing an article on Omura/ Cockroach Mask, for her magazine, after hearing that he is aiming to become the champion at an upcoming tournament.

“My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” is clearly aimed at a young audience. The plot is straightforward and for the most part we follow events from Shota’s perspective, occasionally seeing Takashi as he struggles with his rehabilitation and his role as the heel to more popular wrestlers. The story is premised on the idea that Shota does not understand the role of heel wrestlers, and would not be impressed that his dad is a wrestler of any kind. He may also be too young to fully understand that wrestling is a show as opposed to a genuine competition. Later in the film, Shota’s friend Mana (Maharu Nemoto) tells him that it is amazing enough that he is a wrestler at all, which had he been told that earlier would have saved him a lot of angst. That being said, if you leave your cynicism at the door, the film does have a lot to recommend it.

The young actors do a great job as Shota’s friends. Kokoro Terada is likeable as Shota and his upset at discovering his dad has a job where he appears to be disrespected is portrayed well. Maharu Nemoto is energetic and engaging as Shota’s wrestling fan classmate, Mana. Most of the young cast have little to do, but they all give solid performances that are enjoyable. One of the most entertaining characters in Riisa Naka’s Michiko, whose enthusiasm and infectious passion for the sport spills over each time she is on screen. One of the highlights of the film are the wrestling sequences themselves. Having a cast of real pro-wrestlers, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Hirooki Goto among them, means that essentially these are full-on professional wrestling matches on screen. The athleticism and skill they bring to these scenes make them a joy to watch. In addition, Hiroshi Tanahashi does a fantastic job of portraying the family man and former champion Omura. His relationship with Shota is believable and genuinely moving.

At heart this is a film about the relationship between a father and son and learning to accept people for who they are and respect their dreams. Shota begins the film full of love for his father, his idealised image of the kind and tough figure he knows later shattered when he realises that everyone appears to hate him and he is acting like a bad guy. Tanahashi wants to do everything he can to earn the love of his son, who he clearly cares for a lot. He also wishes that he could return to his glory days, the heel wrestler gig being something of a comedown from his career highs. He accepts the position because his injury prevents him from returning as a face and his love of wrestling means he’s not willing to quit. There is also an interesting subtext to the film; one which is best articulated by Michiko who explains that wrestling needs both heels and faces. In society there are different roles to fill, not everyone can be the top, but they can play their part. This acceptance of a less than perfect situation and realising the importance of what you have (in this instance the love of a father or son) rather than striving for an impossible ideal is an important message. Overall, “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” has enough there to keep you entertained, although it will perhaps appeal most to a younger audience or pro-wrestling fans.

We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.

Mirai (2018) by Mamoru Hosoda

Kun is a feisty two-year old, obsessed with trains, living with his parents and their dog. When his parents arrive home with his baby sister Mirai, Kun is initially ecstatic about the prospect of a new member of the family. However, he soon realises that the attention he was receiving is now being given to his sister. Feeling left out, he begins acting up, with angry or tearful outbursts at the unfairness of his situation. When he goes out into the garden he is whisked away on flights of fancy, meeting various figures from his family in different guises or at different stages of their life. These figures each teach Kun a valuable life lesson.

Director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, The Boy and The Beast) is no stranger to stories about the pain of growing up. In “Mirai” he takes a look at a very young character, Kun, and how children can often feel ignored or side-lined with the arrival of a younger sibling. The situations shown in the film will be familiar to those with siblings, or parents raising young children, with temper tantrums and everyday problems running a household. The film itself seems to be aimed at a younger demographic, both in its sense of humour and in the instructive adventures Kun goes on. It has something of a fairytale feel, with the young boy going on a journey of discovery and coming back more mature and enlightened. The animation is enjoyable and the team capture the motion of children and animals well. It is interesting to see the majority of the film take place in a single location, the family home, and as it goes on you get a real sense of place and almost come to know the house as well as the characters. There is also some excellent use of computer graphics and modern techniques, such as in rendering steam on a windowpane, or the expansive birds-eye view of the city where the family live. The fantastical moments are a welcome break from the mundane everyday routines of the family. I found the most affecting moment towards the end of the film, when they bring what has until then being a series of seemingly unrelated occurrences together into some semblance of structure. The film may be less enjoyable for older children or adults as the lessons Kun learns all boil down to something fairly similar and obvious, although the film does have some creative scenarios for the fantasy sequences. The film also often feels as though it is a collection of interesting ideas and moments without a cohesive narrative to hold it together.

Mirai does an excellent job of portraying the emotions of its young protagonist. The arrival of his sister leaves Kun feeling neglected and unloved. In order to cope he escapes into his own world in an attempt to understand what he is feeling. It is a journey of discovery for Kun as he attempts to understand that he is part of a larger whole, and to accept that kindness and co-operation are better than selfishness. It also has important lessons for children about never giving up and perhaps how to deal with difficult emotions by distancing yourself from them and attempting to rationalise your feelings as Kun does. The film also touches on the notion of fate and the impact that small acts can have on the future.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Mary Smith is a young girl living with her mother and grandmother in a remote rural area. She is feeling isolated without any friends her own age, except for Peter, a young boy who delivers letters to her grandmother. One lazy afternoon, Mary follows two cats into the woods where she discovers a mysterious blue flower. She finds herself able to fly on a broomstick and is whisked away to the magical Eldor College, managed by Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. Mary is told that her red hair, which she hates, marks her as a prodigy and adept magic user. At first pleased with her new status, Mary soon discovers that the school harbours a dark secret, with experiments in transforming animals and humans.

Based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, the film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi from a screenplay by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi. The story is a straightforward adventure, with a small cast of main characters, but succeeds in making its characters expressive and memorable, particularly Mary, who is a likeable heroine. She is flawed, often caught in a lie and with a complex about her unruly red hair. These insecurities are balanced with traits such as resourcefulness, inquisitiveness and humour. Doctor Dee and Madame Mumblechook are well designed as fantastical, humorous caricatures. The film was produced by Studio Pontoc, with several animators from Studio Ghibli on their staff it is clear to see the influence both in story and animation. The magical nature of the world allows for creativity in the design of the college and it is interesting to see the English countryside rendered in this style, with the green rolling hills and woodlands captured perfectly. The action beats of the film are exciting and the score is thrilling.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a coming of age story about a young girl who is somewhat lost and alone, dealing with her anxieties, becoming confident and able to take on the world. When we first see Mary she is stifled by boredom, but her inquisitiveness leads her to a fantastical adventure. In the story of Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee we have a simple morality tale about the dangers of lusting after power. There are actually darker undertones regarding the morality of scientific enquiry, with the transmogrification of animals being used as an example of experimentation with questionable motivations. Overall, the film is a fun adventure tale for children, with an enjoyable magical world to get lost in. It does not over-complicate itself, but has a charming central character that young audiences will relate to.