What begins as a whimsical way to become nearer her crush turns into a deeper examination of hurt and character in A Whisker Away, the latest film from prolific screenwriter Mari Okada, whose foray into youth romance includes Toradora, Vampire Knight, and Anohana. In fact, she’s been such a fixture for high school romance anime over the past decade and more that her work has come to almost define the genre. But in A Whisker Away, which made its world premiere on Netflix, Okada (as screenwriter—she did not direct this film as she did Maquia) continues to stretch her vision which here encompasses a world of cats beyond our senses, including some that become human and visa-versa, and in doing so brings together her strength of showing an authentic picture of teenagers with what was once a weakness, an attachment ti a fantasy settings.
The film immediately introduces the would-be couple who are seemingly as different as can be—Sasaki, nicknamed Muge, who is boisterous and bombastic, especially toward her crush, Hinode, a quiet and intense boy struggling with a family that in depending on him to go to a good high school, though he wishes to continue on his grandfather’s path as a potter. You can imagine that Hinode is not amused by Muge’s overwhelming gestures of affection toward him. He is, however, deeply connected to a beautiful white kitten that visits him each night. Little does Hinode know that the kitten isn’t a cat at all—it’s Muge transformed.
And so this romance is set against the fantastical element of cat/human transformations and later, a cat world, though it thoroughly stays anchored in very human emotions. Comparisons will arise (assuredly among Netflix posting outlets that only know the most renowned of anime) with a number of films, including those of Studio Ghibli and of Makoto Shinkai; the latter doesn’t necessarily fit (this film’s animation is good, but wouldn’t be confused for Hosoda masterly work, while Okada’s characterization is far superior), but Ghibli might. Being set in a cat world as well, The Cat Returns would obviously come to mind, and so, too, will Spirited Away with its Shinto spirit bathhouse. Unlike those films, this one feels a bit disparate at times, as if the cat world segment is unnecessary, thrown in to advance the plot in a way that will entertain audiences with fantastic images (a few) and fun characters (many). The animators can’t quite live up to the worlds of those films, nor of Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast, but aside from a visit to a charming human-cat bar, aren’t given much to work with.
The better comparison is to Whisper of the Heart, likewise featuring young people yearning for something more, two that seem quite different but who are struggling just the same. It’s commendable that in a relatively short run time, Muge’s complicated backstory and her relationships with key people around her is established so well, and through those relationships and circumstances we come to see her not as another genki girl but as genuine: just a young person trying to find herself despite personal and familial challenges. At her best, Okada imbues her characters with those complex qualities that we all have, and moves the audience from laughing at a character’s hijinks to deeply feeling for her and rooting for her best, which isn’t always getting what she wants, but becoming more and more the person she wants to be.
It’s no surprise, then, that even if elements of the story are a bit contrived or the would-be romance a tad forced, the story has a satisfying conclusion and creates a warmth that makes you want to hang on through the lovely animated credits. It may not achieve the heights of Toradora, but this whimsical ride need not to do so—A Whisker Away is charming, heartfelt, and worth the stream from your Netflix account.
A Whisker Away can be streamed on Netflix beginning June 18th, 2020. All images used courtesy of Netflix.