TL;DR – Haru saves a cat from getting hit by a truck and triggers a journey into the Cat Kingdom where she unwittingly discovers cats that act like humans in more ways than one.
Review (warning: spoilers)
The Cat Returns (aka Neko no Ongaeshi) sees the return of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, a handsome cat that dresses up in a suit and uses a cane. The Baron is a cat figurine that is used to inspire the main character in Whisper of the Heart to write a novel. In The Cat Returns, the Baron comes to life to help a young girl named Haru trapped in the Cat Kingdom.
Haru is a quiet, unassuming girl who often sleeps in, is late for school, and has an affection for cats. She has a good heart though is a bit unlucky in life and secretly pines after a boy named Machida in her class even though he already has a girlfriend.
One afternoon, while walking home from school, she spies a cat carrying a little gift box in its mouth. The cat attempts to cross the road, but Haru sees that an oncoming truck will run the poor feline over. Spurred into action, she rushes over with a lacrosse stick, scoops up the cat, and scrambles over to the opposite side crashing into the bushes. There she watches amazed as the cat stands on its hind legs and brushes himself down with his paws and then thanks Haru using human words for saving his life.
The cat she has saved is Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom, and later that evening, Haru receives a visit from a progression of cats (all walking on their hind legs) down her street carrying the Cat King who gifts Haru with a program as thanks for saving his son. The program will bestow upon her unlimited happiness, but Haru discovers the next day that happiness is all relative.
She wakes up with her front yard overgrown with cattails, and receives gifts of catnip and mice in her school locker. All this would be heaven if you’re cat, but for Haru it’s nothing but trouble. She is visited again by one of the servants of the Cat King and is invited to his kingdom along with a proposal to marry Prince Lune.
She, of course, expresses that she can’t marry a cat but briefly ponders the idea of living a life as a cat and thinking it would be much easier than being a human. This is interpreted as acceptance of the marriage proposal and leads her down an Alice-in-Wonderland type adventure into the Cat Kingdom.
Thankfully, there are those who are willing to help her return to the human world including the Baron and Muta (a giant fat cat with a penchant for eating everything in sight). Though Haru slowly begins to transform into a cat, she escapes with the aid of the Baron, Muta, Prince Lune (who didn’t realise that his father had tried to arrange this marriage) and Yuki (a white cat that Haru saved from starvation when she was a little girl).
The Cat King reminded me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. A rambunctious and volatile character that doesn’t hesitate in having any cat in his court kicked off the highest balcony in his castle. His attempts to prevent Haru from returning to the human world include a maze that gets Haru lost and a tower that has a portal to the human world loaded up with explosives.
In the end, Haru succeeds in persevering through her transformations and returning home. She learns to stand on her own two feet, which is the key transformation that sticks with Haru. By story’s end, she has grown and understands who she is better.
When she is told that Machida has broken up with her girlfriend, she reacts nonplussed and you realise her transformation is complete.
Not necessarily as impactful as other coming-of-age Studio Ghibli films (e.g., Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away are two masterpiece coming-of-age Studio Ghibli creations that come to mind), it still ticks all the boxes and is a delightful journey into the discovery of one’s self.
7 out of 10