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Common thread


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POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Whenever Studio Ghibli releases a new feature in theaters, attention often turns to one of the animation studio's famed co-founders, Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata.

There's a good reason for that. Miyazaki and Takahata combined have directed 13 out of the 15 Ghibli films released in the United States. Miyazaki has been the face of the studio with his latest film, “;Ponyo,”; and a resume that includes the Academy Award-winning “;Spirited Away,”; family favorites like “;My Neighbor Totoro”; and more mature fare like “;Princess Mononoke.”; Takahata has been less prolific, but his films include the heartbreaking war tale “;Grave of the Fireflies.”;

The other two films, while directed by different people, share a common character in Baron, an anthropomorphic cat dressed in a top hat and a suit.

The first to feature Baron was the Yoshifumi Kondo-directed “;Whisper of the Heart,”; released in Japan in 1995. “;Whisper”; would be the only film directed by Kondo, who died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 47. It's also the Ghibli film most likely to get the John Denver song “;Take Me Home, Country Roads”; stuck in your head for days, with a version of the song sung by Olivia Newton-John opening the film and main character Shizuku rewriting the lyrics several times. (One version about the urban sprawl of West Tokyo, “;Concrete Roads,”; is particularly clever.)

The rewrites, which are for a graduation song, are just one way of displaying Shizuku's creativity and imaginative spirit. But while she might be creative, she's also a middle school student trying to figure out the direction she wants to take in life. She often finds comfort in going to the library and reading books, but she's noticed a rather curious trend: All of the books she's picking previously were checked out by someone named Seiji Amasawa.

What emerges is a cute little slice-of-life tale in which Shizuku discovers that the boy who seemingly existed to be a thorn in her side is in fact Seiji, her first true love. She also finds her inspiration to write a novel in a curio shop owned by Seiji's grandfather—one that contains a detailed figurine of the aforementioned Baron.

It's the little details that make “;Whisper”; enjoyable, from the first glimpse of a fat cat that becomes key to the plot slipping onto Shizuku's train to the shots of the characters walking through typical Japanese suburban neighborhoods. There are also nods to previous Ghibli films, with the words “;Porco Rosso”; engraved on a clock and Totoro figurines on a doll maker's shelf. And while the film might be more grounded in reality than other Ghibli films—save, perhaps, for the ending, which takes a real leap of faith to digest—it's certainly one of the studio's more satisfying offerings to date.

TAKING A MORE whimsical tone is the Hiroyuki Morita-directed “;The Cat Returns,”; released in 2002. Indeed, the cat—or more specifically, cats—from “;Whisper”; return in what is to date the only sequel produced at Ghibli.

Yet it's not a continuation of Shizuku and Seiji's story; rather, it's Shizuku's novel brought to life. You know you aren't in “;Whisper”; territory when, soon after main character Haru scoops up a cat from the path of an oncoming truck, that cat stands up on his hind legs and properly thanks her before leaving.

So while this is also a coming-of-age tale, where the greatest lesson Haru must learn is to believe in herself, it's a tale told in the context of talking animals and slapstick humor. The cat Haru saved turns out to be Prince Lune of the Kingdom of Cats, and to thank her the Cat King bestows upon her piles of lavish gifts (which turn out to be catnip, a yard full of cattails, boxes of live mice, and hundreds of lacrosse sticks to replace the one she broke rescuing Lune) ... and the right to marry Lune.

Haru, naturally, is less than thrilled about having to go to the Kingdom of Cats. So she enlists the help of the Cat Bureau, run by Baron with the aid of “;Whisper's”; fat cat, Muta, which comes in handy when she's whisked off by force.

“;The Cat Returns”; seems to take the safer, more conservative storytelling route when compared with “;Whisper”; and some of Ghibli's other offerings.

That's not to say it fails to entertain; it's certainly enjoyable on its own, and it contains a few clever visual flourishes (the Kingdom of Cats is located in an area where the lakes are arranged in the shape of a cat's paw, for instance). Yet it just feels like it's lacking that extra touch that divides the merely good Ghibli films from the great ones.