Year: 2002
Director: Morita Hiroyuki
Screenplay: Yoshida Reiko
Art Direction: Tanaka Naoya
Animation: Inoue Ei and Ozaki Kazutaka
Music: Nomi Yuuji
Runtime: 75 min
Trailer: on YouTube

猫の恩返し (Neko no Ongaeshi, literally The Cat’s Repayment but known as The Cat Returns in English) is one of two Studio Ghibli productions based on mangas written by Hiiragi Aoi – the other being the 1995 耳をすませば (Mimi o Sumaseba/Whisper of the Heart). 

There are in fact two cats that ‘return’: the baron, Humbert von Gikkingen,

and the fat cat – known as ‘Muta’ in Neko no Ongaeshi, and by multiple names, including ‘Moon’, in Mimi o Sumaseba –

both appeared in Hiiragi’s first manga.

Unlike what the Japanese film poster for Mimi o Sumaseba suggested (see image gallery below), the original anime was very much set in a real, not fantastical world, focusing on school girl Shizuku and her friendship with the boy Seiji. The baron featured as a statue, coming alive only in a dream-like sequence of a story imagined by budding writer Shizuku. Although not given much screen time, the character of the baron was popular,  and apparently led to a Japanese theme park commissioning a 20-minute short. This project was never finished, but Hiiragi’s second manga followed and was used by Studio Ghibli to find new directing talent for the animation studio, which up to then had only seen founders Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao (and Kondō Yoshifumi for Mimi o Sumaseba) at the helm of projects.

In Neko no Ongaeshi the baron and the fat cat then return to inhabit much bigger roles, alongside a human character, the schoolgirl Haru. Haru, who is somewhat clumsy and chronically late to school (much like Toki o Kakeru Shōjo’s Makoto, although Hosoda’s heroine of course came after Morita’s), rescues a cat from a certain death one day and soon learns that it was not just any feline, but cat prince Lune from the Kingdom of Cats. She finds herself knee-deep in catnip and live mice as the populace of the kingdom   bestow gifts on her to demonstrate gratitude. When the cats inform her that she is also to become Lune’s lucky bride, Haru balks and seeks help from the Cat Business Office – the baron and Muta.

It becomes clear at this point that the Kingdom of Cats is not the kingdom of all cats, but a strange world created by a select group, a sort of land of milk and honey for those willing to partake in a grande charade. The baron, too upright in his character, and Muta, too self-centred and cynical, however are not compliant, as they know the cost of such a fake world: the loss of oneself.

This message of knowing and staying true to oneself underlines Neko no Ongaeshi and is conveyed well, in particular through the kingdom cats, who feel odd from the very beginning. Walking on their hind legs and smiling permanently, they are just a little too human and too cheery. No surprise then that they abduct Haru to ensure that everything goes according to planned perfection.

Neko no Ongaeshi however becomes a much less interesting film once we enter the Kingdom of Cats. Unlike other Studio Ghibli masterpieces (もののけ姫/Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke, ハウルの動く城 Hauru no Ugoku Shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle or 千と千尋の神隠し/Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away), the story is simple and everything that happens is foreseeable, including Haru’s half-conversion to a cat. With unpredictability being one of the main reasons that make the animation studio’s films so appealing, there is a real want here, one that the art – the other charm of Studio Ghibli productions – unfortunately does not make up for. The drawing style is generally plain, visuals lacking the rich imagination that was on display in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, as well as the extraordinary perceptiveness seen in 魔女の宅急便 (Majo no Takkyūbin/Kiki’s Delivery Service).

In a way, Neko no Ongaeshi feels almost like an older production, as if from a studio not quite so experienced, not yet fully matured. But with Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi winning the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature in the year prior to the film’s release and 風の谷のナウシカ (Kaze no Tani no Naushika/Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), one of Miyazaki’s oldest – even predating Ghibli’s foundation -, remaining one of the studio’s best, this impression is flawed: it is really Morita, who previously only worked as an animator, that has not reached his full form in filmmaking.

Fortunately, Neko no Ongaeshi ends well – that is, within the tradition of strong, independent Studio Ghibli heroines. Haru’s concluding thoughts give us not a Disneyesque happy-ever-after but an all-ends-well with a Ghibli-twist.

Overall verdict: A Studio Ghibli production that hints at the magic of the animation studio, but lacks the ingenuity and charm of the best of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films – as well as of Kondō’s delightful prequel.

Rating: 6/10

Final footnote: Kondō would have seemed the most obvious choice for directing Neko no Ongaeshi, but suffered an untimely death in 1998 due to a ruptured aneurysm. A real loss I think – his Mimi o Sumaseba is a true gem. I won’t be reviewing it here, as himonogirl is planning a write-up. Knowing that she cherishes Mimi o Sumaseba as much as I do, I’m sure she’ll do the film justice.

Bonus Links:

  • The original mangas (in English translation): Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns.
  • Image gallery (including the Mimi o Sumaseba poster and sample pages from Hiiragi’s mangas):