A Whisker Away Review

Warning: this review contains major spoilers for A Whisker Away. If you just want to read a spoiler-free verdict to decide if the film is worth watching, skip to the final paragraph.

Netflix’s latest original anime, director Junichi Sato’s A Whisker Away (JP title: Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu), comes to North American audiences much earlier than expected, due to the continuing COVID pandemic preventing the film from debuting in theatres. In the ten days since the film has come out, various reviewers have drawn comparisons to Makoto Shinkai’s films, Your Name in particular, and to Studio Ghibli films Spirited Away and Whisper of the Heart. With such lofty and prestigious comparisons, A Whisker Away ought to be the next in a line of absolutely classic anime films. But does the film truly merit such flattering comparisons? Well… let’s take a closer look.

The film follows Miyo Sasaki, nicknamed Muge, a junior high schooler still struggling with the trauma of her parents’ divorce. Wishing to escape from the pressures of her real life, Muge runs into a mysterious cat known as the Mask Seller, who offers her a mask that allows her to transform into a cat whenever she wishes. Muge accepts the mask, and it is as a cat that she meets and falls for her classmate Hinode, a boy who only seems to open up to her as a cat. Infatuated, Muge recklessly pursues the withdrawn Hinode, and the line between her lives as a human and cat begins to blur, with dangerous consequences.

Undoubtedly, A Whisker Away’s greatest assets are its art style and animation. While pretty basic, the character designs manage to be both exaggerated and cartoony while always looking realistic, which is necessary considering the film’s balance between comedy and serious character-driven drama. The character designs here really resemble those found in Mamoru Hosoda’s films, and like Hosoda’s films, A Whisker Away’s art style also renders the simplistic settings of protagonists Muge and Hinode’s lives beautifully. The pottery shop where Hinode’s grandfather works is quite detailed, littered with clay pots, kettles, plates, and vases of different colours, but the real stand-out is Muge’s bedroom, an incredibly detailed and telling environment. Her walls are filled with pieces of rough artwork and cartoon sketches, and the shelves are lined with falling over books, a large whale figurine, and boxes of various drawing and school equipment. The attention to detail brings the room to life and also gives us some insight into the kinds of things Muge enjoys doing when she hides away in her room.

At several different points in the film, Muge retreats to her bedroom to avoid awkwardly interacting with her father’s girlfriend Kaoru, and the atmosphere and framing of her bedroom changes to reflect her mood in each scene. In one scene, Muge is excited by Hinode’s seeming concern for her, and the film shows her joyful reaction by focusing entirely on her legs kicking excitedly outside of the curtains under her bed. And shortly after a conflict with Hinode at school, the next scene shows Muge inside her canopy beside a trash can of used tissues, but her face is obscured by the pillow she’s crying into. The curtains represent Muge’s desire to hide her feelings from her family, whether feelings of joy or sorrow, but in a brilliant artistic choice, the curtains hide her facial expressions from the audience as well. As this is a film about characters who are rarely honest or forthcoming about their feelings, the animators’ decision to frame Muge’s bedroom in such a way that the audience is also shut out from her emotions is really clever.  

However, as much as animation and art style are the strength of the film, the design of the “Other Side,” the dimension where those who have become cats reside, is notably lackluster. There’s a generic world-tree at the centre and some kind of tree house city around it, but there’s such wasted potential and lack of creativity to the overall design. For one, why would a city of cats even be in a tree? There’s no real reason for it, and the location just looks like a rejected set piece from Spirited Away. Had the artists really explored the idea of what a city of cats would look like and what kinds of buildings cats might inhabit, rather than just having a regular bar or food stand with cat people using them instead of people, the Other Side would have felt more like a real place and could have sparked our imaginations. As it is, the Other Side makes for a totally boring location, in a film with otherwise well-designed sets, and robs the film’s final act of any excitement or interest.

As much as I thought the first and last third of the film dragged, there are a few moments in the middle where a much more interesting movie manages to break through. The scene where Muge finally lashes out at Kaoru and decides to abandon her humanity and live as a cat is appropriately tense and emotionally impactful, and the scenes where cat Muge and house cat-turned-human Kinako interact are easily the best moments of the film. One of their confrontations sees them both walking on top of a railing while they argue, and Kinako’s movements still resemble the confident stride of a cat, despite her new human form. The animators’ attention to detail makes this scene visually striking, but it’s Kinako’s situation that makes these scenes especially memorable. Her dilemma of how best to express love and care for her owner Kaoru is fascinating. Kinako knows that Kaoru loves her cat, but Kinako also knows that Kaoru wants her boyfriend’s daughter to return home and ultimately accept her, so she forgoes her cat form in order to act as Muge and give Kaoru what she wants. Kinako’s arc perhaps best represents the film’s larger theme about the dangers of sacrificing your identity in order to please others, as she literally changes to a human just to make Kaoru happy. While Kinako’s plotline is not fully explored nor is it resolved in an entirely satisfactory manner, the concept behind her character and the bit of story we do get are fascinating and are some of the only parts of the film that genuinely kept me interested.

Unfortunately, while the film is pretty to look at and has some memorable moments, the majority of the film flounders and fails to keep its roughly 100 minute run time from dragging terribly. Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is its protagonists, Muge and Hinode, and their poorly developed romance. From the very start of the movie, we know that Muge is head over heels for Hinode, but aside from a brief flashback where she was a cat and he expressed a general dislike for the world and almost everyone in it, there’s no real connection or interesting dynamic between their characters. Watching Hinode’s personal problems at home or at school is as uninteresting as watching paint dry, and Muge’s exaggerated and obsessive devotion to him seems to at best be an inconvenience to him and at worst something he finds deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. The relationship is entirely one-sided for the majority of the film, and given Muge’s flimsy attachment to Hinode, it’s difficult to believe in or root for their romance. Since the story relies so much on the strength of the romance between the often unlikable Muge and the always boring Hinode, getting invested in the film is nearly impossible.

Just as the protagonists and their romance sucked almost any interest in the film out of me, the inconsistent tone and pacing obliterated any chance of my getting into the story. Considering A Whisker Away is a movie where a magical, invisible dimension of half-cats, half-humans exists, you would think that the Other Side would have been introduced much sooner. The movie spends so little time developing the Mask Seller, its only villain, and the other cat-people yet makes the Other Side the stage for its climax, a shift in tone and genre that comes out of left field. I already mentioned how unfinished and ill-thought out the Other Side looks, and that lack of thought extends beyond appearance to its narrative purpose as well. In the final act, we’re introduced to several new cat characters, who ultimately defeat the Mask Seller and save Muge. Since the film doesn’t even spend ten minutes on these characters who are about to play such a vital role, the climax feels hollow and unearned. All of the fantastical elements of the film are underdeveloped and vague, and that could have been okay, had the film only used the base premise of the cat and human masks to facilitate a more personal story. But because the plot is resolved by a physical confrontation with cat-people and their magical world becomes the only location we see for the final chunk of the movie, the fantasy elements should have been established much earlier and explored much further.

Like the pacing, the tone of the film is erratic. The film has a deliberate mix of drama and comedy, and while the first third of the film achieves some kind of balance between the two, the latter half abruptly swerves from drama to comedy with no clear sense of purpose. In one scene, Muge has just doomed herself to being a cat forever and goes home to say her final goodbyes, when goofy piano music suddenly starts playing and she witnesses Kaoru and her mother physically fighting each other, a moment which is oddly played for laughs. The film spends so much time building up Muge’s mother who abandoned her and the tension between her mother and her father’s new girlfriend, only to have all of that build-up be wasted in a comedic scene and never touched on again. Similarly egregious is the climax, in which the Mask Seller is defeated by several cats sitting on him while he groans underneath their weight. The whole scene is absurd, and the levity of the situation jarringly contrasts with the prior scenes of the Mask Seller physically intimidating the two kids and taking Muge’s lifespan away from her. In both instances, the film builds tension and immediately kills it with comedy, destroying whatever emotional investment it had managed to inspire.

Finally, one of my biggest issues with the movie is how confused and questionable its overall message becomes. The story is all about how repressing and refusing to express feelings makes true connection impossible and how essential learning to forgive the faults of others is. Muge and Hinode must learn how their selfish actions impact other people and realize that others genuinely care about them, even if they can’t always see it. I don’t have any problems with that message, even if the execution is a little heavy-handed for my tastes, but I do take issue with the fact that the same film criticizing selfish behaviour excuses so much of Muge’s invasive and inconsiderate behaviour towards Hinode. Muge repeatedly smacks Hinode with her butt and vocally fantasizes about him in class in front of everyone, while knowing her actions are unwanted and make Hinode uncomfortable. She refuses to move on and pursues him relentlessly, despite his obvious disinterest in her. Despite the larger themes about owning up to how our unthinking selfishness affects other people, Muge is never forced to acknowledge or face the consequences of her pushy obsession with Hinode; worse, it is Hinode who is pressured to tolerate her invasion of his boundaries, as Muge’s friend Yori and Kinako both impress upon him that it is his responsibility to confess his love to Muge and save her. Although Hinode’s arc is about him learning how to express his needs and feelings, his discomfort is brushed aside by the narrative, and he is ultimately pushed into saying he loves Muge in order to prevent her from becoming a cat forever. Becoming a cat and abandoning humanity acts as an obvious suicide metaphor in Muge’s narrative, so it is a bit alarming that Hinode must bear the pressure of keeping Muge from essentially killing herself. I’m fairly certain the writers didn’t intend for the romance to come off that way, but regardless, the film’s mixed message and frequent habit of excusing terrible behaviour really rubbed me the wrong way and made Hinode and Muge’s otherwise boring romance something to actively root against.

Ultimately, despite my largely negative review, A Whisker Away is not even close to being the worst anime film I’ve seen, as it does have some redeeming qualities. The art is pretty to look at, and the animators have a keen eye for details and believably flesh out the every day environments of Muge and Hinode. Furthermore, there’s an interesting premise at the heart of A Whisker Away; representing the contradictory desires in people with a human-animal duality is interesting, and Kinako’s story hints at a much better film about the difficulties of loving and caring for people while still remaining yourself. However, the film never reaches its true potential, becoming bogged down by a lacklustre romance, boring characters, poor pacing, and a slightly alarming message. If you’re someone who likes to watch every up-and-coming anime film, you very well may enjoy aspects of A Whisker Away. But if you’re just interested in the idea of an anime that uses fantastical elements to explore every day human issues of anxiety, self-loathing, suicidal ideation, and miscommunication, I’d recommend watching Anthem of the Heart instead, as it is a vastly more competent and well-written film that engages more thoughtfully with the same ideas.

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