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.  

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.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki

From the opening scenes of a giant walking castle, it is clear that this film is going to be a magical experience. We are introduced to Sophie, a young girl making hats in her mother’s hat-shop. When the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady, she finds herself swept up into an often unexpected, but always thrilling world of wizards and spells. Sophie sets off to find Howl, whose improbably constructed castle can be seen wandering the landscape, in order to remove the curse, learning about life and love along the way.

The film is full of inventive moments, with the magic element giving the film a truly unexpected quality. Abundant spells mean that anything could happen, and often does. Sophie is a likeable character, with some funny moments and a plight that makes the audience care for her. One of the things the film does well is create a believable world. The artwork and animation is a wonder to behold with all the minute details on the walking castle and street scenes keeping your eyes busy trying to look at everything. The depiction of landscapes, mountains and lakes, do a perfect job in creating a sense of amazement at the natural world, and the action sequences are similarly engaging. The story takes place in a world at war, with a strong anti-war message. The way the film puts across this message is unusual in largely ignoring the war, showing it to be pointless and stupid, and instead focussing on the magic of the countryside and the enjoyment of peace. Instead we see battle-cruisers heading for war, or planes overhead, and the beautiful landscape surrounding offers a counterpoint to this, almost asking the audience to choose between the ugly mechanisation of war, or the rural idyll that the main characters spend most of their time exploring. The times when the war is depicted, it is a dark, dangerous place. The plot can be mysterious at times, but this further adds to the sense of this being a real place with complex characters all of whom have a past, and hopes and dreams. The music is fantastic, with an uplifting score that compliments the gorgeous visuals.

A highly enjoyable film, with creative use of magic and an style that makes every moment a pleasure. As well as a central love story, the film features several themes, including an anti-war message and ideas of aging and maturity. The transformation of Sophie into an old lady, and other transformations further emphasises the themes of growth and change. I would definitely recommend this film as it is packed with so many memorable moments, an engaging plot, likeable characters, and an incredible visual style.