Late in 2019, the Academy revealed the list of films submitted for the Oscar for Animated Feature, an eclectic mix of mainstream studio fare, low-budget foreign entries, and innovative pieces of high art. I made it my mission to see as many of the submissions as possible before the nominations even came out, mostly in hopes of clearing the category in advance, but also because here in Los Angeles, a lot of those films get their required screening right after the submissions are announced, typically two months before the films on the general ballot. This mini-showcase of films I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten a chance to see was one of the highlights of the pre-Blitz period last year, allowing me to see 21 of the 32 entries.
It’s with that goal in mind that I took a look at A Whisker Away on Netflix. With the Academy’s schedule pushed back by two months, the deadline for specialty categories to submit was December 1, and thus far, the submissions have yet to be announced, though I anticipate it coming any day now. This anime film seems like just the type that would vie for attention, and to compete for one of the usual 1-2 spots in the final field that go to non-American works. And honestly, anything we can do to squeeze Trolls World Tour and Scoob! out of the running is worth watching in my book.
In general, I’m a fan of anime. I had a few brief spurts of fandom when I was younger, before fully integrating it into my nerd catalog about 10 years ago. I love the art style and the humor, and what little Japanese I know was basically learned through osmosis by watching these shows and movies, recognizing frequently used words, and matching them up with the subtitles. I also just get a kick out of hearing the voice actors, a few dozen talented artists who end up crossing paths on any number of projects, both in Japanese and English.
A Whisker Away is a fun bit of teenage melodrama escapism framed around a magical construct, and the story is incredibly simple. But it’s also undeniably charming and sweet in its simplicity, and knowing the kinds of characters the English voice cast tends to play kind of helps inform the roles just that much better. I also love the double meaning of the title, in that a) the main love interest is literally just a whisker away from the lead protagonist in the form of a cat, and b) the magical aspect is a means for forces around the main character to “whisk her away” on her journey.
Set in the town of Tokoname, with real locations animated in, as it was co-director Shibayama Tomotaka’s hometown, a young teenage girl named Miyo (voiced in English by Cherami Leigh, known for her work as Asuna on Sword Art Online among others) deals with typical adolescent emotional problems, chiefly her frosty relationship with her stepmother, unresolved feelings of abandonment from her real mother, and an unrequited crush on her classmate, Kento Hinode (Johnny Yong Bosch, best known as the second Black Power Ranger from the 90s before he went into voice acting). At a summer festival, she encounters a mask salesman voiced by Keith Silverstein (aka the murderous Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter), who gives her a porcelain mask in the shape of a cat.
When Miyo, or “Muge” as she’s nicknamed (meaning “enigmatic,” a perfect encapsulation of her character) feels depressed, she’s able to use the mask to literally take the form of a cat. She visits Hinode in this form, where he’s much warmer towards her, calling her “Taro” after his late dog. This provides an unintentional intimacy for Muge, which she translates into invitations to openly flirt with him at school, much to his disdain and embarrassment since he doesn’t know Muge is the affectionate stray who cheers him up as he deals with his own family life issues. This supernatural outlet also lends the film its original Japanese title, Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat.
The lines of reality start to blur for Muge, as she jumps down from a high tree at school to attack some boys making fun of Hinode. It’s brazen and dangerous, but it finally gets Hinode to pay attention to her and develop of soft spot for her as a human. He admires her ability to speak her mind and do whatever she feels is right so impulsively, a quality he lacks, particularly when it comes to his pottery hobby and the expense it causes for his family. However, when Muge humiliates Hinode by writing him a love confession, he forcefully rejects her. This sadness, coupled with her home life issues and near-constant needling from the Mask Seller, leads Muge to decide she no longer wants to be human, and thus give up her face to simply live as a cat. From then on, it’s a mystical race against time to show Hinode the truth, defeat the Mask Seller, and save Muge before she permanently transforms into a feline.
As far as anime tropes are concerned, this is fairly tame and simple. School drama? Check. Idealized romance? Check. Magical worlds? Check. Cats? Check. It’s almost, dare I say, entry-level. But that’s one of the appeals of anime in the first place. Because the art style is so surreal, because the eyes are so big and expressive, because the underlying themes and problems are so basic, it allows the average viewer an easy entry point and ability to engage without being frontloaded with exposition dumps and superfluous narration (not that there isn’t narration here, but it’s clearly used to supplement rather than hand-hold).
Take Muge’s love for Hinode for instance. The way the movie presents it, Muge goes to the festival, gets down in the dumps, gets the mask, and later, when she’s at school, she tells her friend Yoriko (Erika Harlacher, also of Hunter x Hunter; basically if you watch Sword Art Online, Hunter x Hunter, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Kill la Kill, you’ve heard this entire voice cast in one form or another) about how sensitive Hinode actually is, flashing back to a scene of them huddling for shelter in the rain and sharing their feelings. It provides a perfect framework for her side of the story, but it also gives the audience a satisfying bit of world-building, because those who can figure out the context of that flashback get an early clue to the larger story, and those who can’t are set up for a fun reveal. Either way, the story still makes sense, and no one feels cheated.
Part of the reason this works so well is because modern anime is really good about grounding the fantastical elements of their worlds in real-life circumstances. While this movie isn’t up to the level of modern opuses like Your Name or Spirited Away, it retains that same relatability. Yes, there’s a magical alternate dimension of anthropomorphic cats, but that all comes after we get the chance to know Muge and the problems she faces, all of which we’ve faced at one time or another. That lends a more personal appeal to the otherworldly elements. Who among us wouldn’t fantasize about shrinking away to live as a cute animal when things are at their worst? That’s the core of escapism, and the film pulls it off admirably. It’s what a lot of other projects either tend to miss or just ignore entirely. Perhaps the nightmare fuel of Cats would have been marginally more palatable if there had been some grounding in the reality of the human condition, but it eschewed that entirely for… I’m still not sure what.
Like I said, this doesn’t quite rise to the pantheon of great anime films, but it’s perfectly fine. It’s sweet and silly, and it’ll leave you smiling. I’d rather see 20 more versions of this competing for an Oscar instead of another Scooby-Doo reboot, that’s for damn sure. The characters are believable, the story is simple and charming, and there’s just enough imagination in the whole affair to let you turn off your brain for 90 minutes and just enjoy a cute distraction. It’s animated comfort food, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that, even if I am allergic to cats.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What animated films did you see in 2020? Do you get a little tinge of excitement when you recognize a voice actor like I do? Let me know!