I was so pumped to watch A Whisker Away. Like, embarrassingly so. Not a day went by in the month beforehand did I not think about it. I checked every other day if I had added it to the watch list on Netflix. A school romance. A fantasy. A story about girl who tries to get close to her crush by transforming into a cat seems quaint. Delightful, even! Despite it being a Netflix production, something that often puts me off, it was in association with Studio Colorido, who produced the highly original Penguin Highway in 2018. And it was predominantly 2D animation which no one wants to see die yet. A Whisker Away kept finding ways to appeal to me.
...‘A Netflix Anime Original’.
The production was titled in English with the intention to reference Studio Ghibli masterpiece Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001) – in Japanese its title ‘Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu’ translates as: ‘Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat’. Even its font is attempting to capture a Disney-esque feel, which of course works on me. I could see that Netflix were trying their hardest to market their anime picture, even going so far as to open the film (as a reminder) ‘A Netflix Anime Original’. And although I was drawn into its whimsical marketing and Disney nod, I found myself... disappointed.
The story: Miyo Sasaki loves her classmate Kento Hinode. He resists her, often even ignores her. She has acquired a mask from the feline ‘Mask Seller’ – a creature straight out of a Ghibli fantasy, like the Turnip spirit with fur – that allows her to change into a cat. Only then does she receive affection from her crush. Meanwhile the ‘Mask Seller’ pesters her to live her life wholly as a cat, her mother’s abandoned her, she doesn’t like her stepmother and her father is oblivious. All the while her crush has his own problems; from family pressure to succeed academically and eventually support the family and fear of losing his grandfather’s pottery shop, something he loves more than anything, our teens seem to be in a bit of a bother. All this comes crashing down around them.
The premise is strong and engaging. As were its characters. I really enjoyed our heroine’s feisty-ness as a human, leaping and bounding about the place. In anime it is rare that a girl who is outspoken for her feelings about a boy isn’t conveyed as a pervert, which is always a plus in my books and refreshing replacement to a shy, soft-spoken or socially-awkward protagonist the art form is used to. Miyo, a romantic and fantasist, knows what she wants and she’ll go after it. Even if she can’t always read the situation appropriately. Her best friend is also an enjoyable and supportive addition who seems to care for her very much, shown wonderfully in a flashback in which she chases a younger Miyo about by the ocean, the pair looking pathetic and ridiculous. Strong female friendships on screen are always welcome. All the characters were pretty well-rounded, and there were quite of few of them – possibly even too many for much focus.
'...people being cats, cats being people...'
It had too many threads. Those threads tied the premise all up in knots. But many of those threads failed to amount to anything satisfactory. With too many ideas on the table; we had romance, parental splits, weighty responsibility, a magical realm, a kind grandfather, a pottery shop, slice-of-life, people being cats, cats being people, an evil mask-selling cat, cats replacing people… I’m sure there were more. Although visually, it captured some of these moments well (Hinode’s home was beautifully painted against low sunsets and traditional architecture with scenes in the craft room nicely lit), story-wise it became underwhelming. If there was a thread I would have enjoyed seeing exploited more, the paw print in the bowl would have been one of them.
I had a problem with the runtime (again), an issue not unique to Netflix but to many production of the last ten years, leading to less conciseness within the story. Finding more aspects being introduced to me as the runtime pressed on concerned me, becoming more and more aware how much they had to resolve. I didn’t doubt they could end the film, it just mattered if it was executed. But its finale felt shoe-horned in, an attempt to capture the tone and feel of Spirited Away but at too late a time to really do anything promisingly with it. In fact the final scenes then begin to feel out of place with the rest of the film.
The writer, Mari Okada has worked as a writer and development team for some of the best Anime out there including; Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (2005) The Anthem of the Heart (2017), Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2011), Toradora (2008-2011) and Maquia (2018) to name just a few. Amazing projects and some personal favourite’s in there. Experienced though she is, I can’t help but feel as though she tried to jam too much into it. Although a story about two people struggling to say what they mean, she’s trying to say too much and it’s reaching capacity.
Its director’s Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, both at different points of their careers having found their origin in animation departments on a variety of projects, are perhaps conflicting talents. Shiubayama is a relatively new director, with A Whisker Away being his first feature credit, with one of his earliest work being a Digital Ink and Paint Artist on, you guessed it, Spirited Away. Meanwhile, Sato is seasoned in many ways, with the predominance of his projects also being series. Which ties into my other issue with the film. My contrariness returns.
'To meet in the middle left it half-done.'
The film feels episodic. It feels as though I’m watching a series with main the major arc of the drama happening over half way through. By the time we are ‘whisked away’ to the finale, where much of the drama has to be resolved, I feel like I’ve just sat through a six episode slice-of-life. Possibly two. There’s a different feeling to the beginning that vanishes by the end; mostly its charm. Even the animation resembles that more of a series than of film, not a problem in itself, but the scope of the story is lost – I couldn’t imagine enjoying this on a big screen as much as say A Silent Voice (2016) which tells a small story in a big way. This tries to tell a relatively exceptional story in a semi-big way. So where A Whisker Away feels like it needs shortening, it could also have, possibly, worked better as a series. To meet in the middle left it half-done.
The messages and the exploration of the modern-family, issues with broken homes are handles well enough. For a youngster, they will probably feel rather moved by the story but having seen my fair few of slice-of-life, school romance, and these topics have been handled in tighter ways that have felt more human and less cutesy. Maybe that’s its biggest problem. There’s no doubt it’s cute, sweet and tries something new with the saturated genre. But when it bloats it’s no longer cute or as sincere as it intends to be. Certainly not as sincere as Okida’s work, School romance The Anthem of the Heart, which explores similar themes of broken homes, not saying what you mean and parental betrayal wrapped in a fairy-tale like narrative.
'A Whisker Away broke less ground...'
My mistake was getting my hopes up. Of course it was. Maybe I was the wrong audience for it – maybe not, I love a romance. But it’s also evidence of Netflix trend. Where the majority of audiences still expect less from Netflix, as many of their originals were notoriously poor a few years ago, they were just pleasantly surprised. A Whisker Away broke less ground than its filmmakers have. But I expect to see much more from the Studio in the future and I’m sure they’ll be stronger than this film. I also believe the directors are incredibly talented; their filmography is proof of this. There were many great people on this project; it’s just a shame it didn’t turn out great. I didn’t feel like bringing the claws out, however. Because a little romance to start the day with wasn’t too bad.
Screencap Of A Whisker Away. A Whisker Away Official Trailer 2020- Netflix. Netflix Asia Youtube Channel. 28th May. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXc9DVfLTGo.