An Animated Dissection: Connecting ‘The Cat Returns,’ to ‘Whisper of the Heart’
As I’ve stated in several previous reviews/dissections, I am quite fond of the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart.
The film proved to be an intriguing story about creativity, music, and writing…traits that one doesn’t necessarily find in animated films, let alone those involving high schoolers.
One of the selling points of the film, was the fictional story-world that the lead character, Shizuku Tsukishima, creates. After coming across an antique store with a statue of a dapper, humanized cat-figure in its window, she is compelled to write a story revolving around the statue.
Even so, Whisper’s overall story was moreso one of high school drama, which made it tie very closely to the manga it was based off of, which was written and illustrated by Aoi Hiiragi. Ms Hiiragi noted in several interviews, that she was surprised that her manga was chosen by Hayao Miyazaki to be used for the basis for one of the studio’s films. One can probably imagine her surprise when a few years later, she’d be called upon to make a slight return to the world of several of those characters.
When a theme park came calling for Ghibli to do a short revolving around cats, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to incorporate the cat characters of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, and Muta, from Whisper. Aoi Hiiragi was also contacted to write a story based around the short. Though the theme park eventually cancelled the project, the seed of the idea began to germinate and grow under Ghibli, into something else.
In the end, Hiiragi’s story would be developed into a film, to be used as a testing ground for new animators at the company. As well, the length of the project grew, until it was soon decided by Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, that the film actually had a storyline that had a compelling character in the guise of its lead, a high school student named Haru.
There were a number of Studio Ghibli fans who discounted the film, given its shorter running time, and decidedly un-Ghibli-like character stylings. When it came to the designs, one could say the filmmakers chose to make the characters moreso resemble Hiiragi’s drawing style. You can see this in the example below, regarding Haru’s character:
The final product of The Cat Returns, can at best, be considered a pseudo-sequel to Whisper of the Heart. It’s one of those films that newcomers can enjoy, but for those who have seen Whisper of the Heart, there are several characters and themes that can be seen throughout.
I decided to list them here, as I couldn’t find very many who had gone through and found them. Below are the few that connect these two films together.
1) Baron Humbert von Gikkingen
Whisper of the Heart’s most iconic fantasy image, is one of Shizuku and the Baron, freefalling against the backdrop of a strange fantasy world. Whisper’s incarnation of the Baron also didn’t completely delve into his character, but gave a small backstory created by Shizuku, when she was writing her story.
The filmmakers even throw in some deja vu, regarding one shot were Haru first gets a good look at the Baron in statue form. The set-up is very similar to a shot in Whisper, regarding Shizuku:
The composer for The Cat Returns even utilizes the Baron’s theme from Whisper as well, usually in some of the more action-oriented segments he’s in.
In Whisper, one of the most iconic moments was when Shizuku happened to spot a large cat getting onto a train. She soon found herself getting sidetracked, and following him. His path led her through all sorts of back-alleys and paths, before she came across the antique store where the statue of the Baron resided. The filmmakers of Returns also reference this follow-the-leader scenario in several scenes:
This also ties into making us believe that this story we are seeing, was written by Shizuku. Whereas the large cat Shizuku followed led her to the antique shop where the Baron’s statue was, Haru’s journey led her to The Cat Bureau, wherein resided the Baron. Also, both cats have a darker coloration around their left ear, as can be seen in the images below:
During the course of Whisper, Shizuku learned that the large cat she spotted, was known by many different names. Seiji Amasawa referred to him as Moon (“because he looks like a ‘full moon,'” he remarked to her). Another time came when Shizuku heard a little girl refer to the cat as Muta.
This was a fun tie-in to Whisper, because it definitely makes the story of how Muta got his name more fun, and can help us to think that what we are seeing, is definitely a story written by Shizuku. We don’t know how many other people would have considered the name of Muta for this cat, so making it out to be Shizuku’s story just clicks.
This also comes into play in a later scene, where in the cat kingdom, Muta tells several of those gathered, that his name is also Reynaldo Moon (note the ‘Moon’ reference?).
In both Whisper and Returns, these two magic moments are key to certain events.
In the case of sunset, it’s a time when the Baron’s presence takes on a certain mystical, and theatrical appearance.
In Whisper, Seiji showed Shizuku a rather fascinating abnormality in the statue’s eyes. When the sunset hit the eyes, they seemed to flicker and come alive. In Returns, the setting sun was reflected in the Baron’s eyes, only in this storyline, he really DOES come alive. As well, each of the scenes contain the following images, that act as a mirror-image to the events:
Sunrise also happens at the end of each film, and is a pivotal moment for both Shizuku in Whisper, and Haru in Returns. Shizuku and Seiji share a moment as the sun rises, and it also acts as the symbol of a new turning point in their lives. As for Haru, it shows her in freefall, before she is rescued by her friends, and then decides to truly start in a new direction regarding how she views life.
Also, Haru’s freefall scene is slightly reminiscent of a scene in Whisper, where in her mind, Shizuku imagines herself freefalling with Baron, off on an adventure.
Some would call these images minor callbacks, but it feels like the extra strand of connective tissue between these films, that not many would even think to consider.
4) The Baron’s ‘residence’
Much like the antique store that the Baron resided in in Whisper, his residence of the Cat Bureau in Returns looks very similar in style, mostly due to the upper floor windows and balcony. The style in the film of The Cat Returns actually differs greatly from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, in which the Baron’s residence actually did resemble the antique shop moreso. As an aside in one panel, he even tells Haru that he sells antiques out of his residence as a hobby.
Above, you can see an image of the shop from Whisper (left), the manga of The Cat Returns (center), and the film version of Returns (right).
While I mainly compared the films Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, I could also see some people out there comparing the storytelling of Ms Hiiragi’s manga story, and the final film product. There were some storypoints that were dropped from Hiiragi’s story, not to mention restructuring of some characters and their story arcs…but, that could be a story for another time.
In regards to things like ‘sequelitis,’ Studio Ghibli has been one of the few studios that does not go the American way with their film productions. In America, when an animated film makes money these days, it is then usually set upon to become a cash-cow with merchandising and sequels close at hand. While Ghibli is no stranger to merchandising, they never shift into overdrive if one of their films does incredibly well (I never heard of a Spirited Away marketing blitz in Japan after that film made so much money). There has also never been a video game developed based on any of their film properties, though one has to wonder if some game companies have tried to get Ghibli to loosen their grip, and do something akin to Kingdom Hearts.
Regarding straight-on sequels, a mis-translation a few years ago made it sound like Hayao Miyazaki was considering a sequel to his simple-yet-sweet 1992 film, Porco Rosso. Then again, there are probably thousands of fans around the world that would likely wish for more sequels to Ghibli films, but I always enjoyed how the majority of their works are nice in a one-time experience sort of way. Continued events would most likely ruin some of the more heart-felt moments that we have been privy to on the big screen, something not often thought of by those begging and pleading for more.