The Cat Returns is, to my knowledge, the only semi-sequel feature film that Studio Ghibli has ever put out (ignoring shorts made for museums). It’s also one of the small number of films put out by Studio Ghibli that aren’t directed by Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki. The film was directed by Hiroyuki Morita, as part of an initiative at Ghibli introduced by Miyazaki as an attempt to groom new directors so the studio isn’t dependant on Takahata and Miyazaki, so when they retire, the studio could go on.
If your response to that last sentence is “Didn’t Ghibli shut down when Miyazaki retired?” then you know exactly what came of that initiative. I don’t know if this was due to internal politics where Miyazaki wasn’t happy with the directors who came out of this project, Miyazaki being a general curmudgeon, or what? Takahata, on the other hand, in spite of my general comments about him and his work in my article about Akira, seems to be okay with younger animators directing films at Ghibli – as the decision to shut down seems primarily driven by Miyazaki, without any feedback by Takahata.
Anyway, as far as the film itself goes – this is probably the most conventionally “anime” film that Ghibli has ever done. This isn’t a slight against the film, by any means. It’s just that most Ghibli films, especially those from Miyazaki, tend to be more pastoral in their settings while most anime (that is set in Japan) tends to be metropolitan (even historical pieces like Rurouni Kenshin). This film, is instead in modern Japan, and most likely in Tokyo.
Just to put an underline on how more conventional anime this film is, the opening of the film is our protagonist, ordinary high school girl Haru Yoshioka, waking up late, quickly getting getting ready for school, but not having enough time to leave breakfast. This leads to her racing downstairs, and seeing her mother eating breakfast of a fried egg on toast, with a similar dish waiting for her, setting up the archetypal anime shot of female protagonist running to school while trying to eat a piece of toast – before she decides to leave without the toast. While this is a subversion of that bit – the key is that Takahata or Miyazaki wouldn’t even go that far.
This goes on with most of the character designs as well – they have some of the slightly larger eyes you see in more conventional anime characters, as opposed to most of Miyazaki’s other films where the characters are less stylized (aside from Castle of Cagliostro, where aside from Fujiko Mine who is almost unrecognizable compared to her other appearances, the Lupin crew retained their conventional designs)
It reminds me a lot of Your Name., where that film lead to a lot of people lauding Makoto Shinkai for being “the next Miyazaki”, when all things considered, his film is a lot more conventionally anime in terms of style and settings.
Where the story kicks off is Haru sees a cat (carrying a parcel) while walking home with her friend. When said cat goes to cross the street and is nearly run over by a truck, Haru grabs her friend’s Lacrosse stick and runs in front of the truck, scooping up the cat, and evading either certain death or ending up in an isekai story. The cat then stands up, and thanks her for saving him, says that he’s a Really Big Deal back in the cat world, and she’ll be rewarded for this.
When the first attempt to reward her – by planting foxtales in her yard (which sets off her and her mothers pollen allergies), putting catnip in her pockets (which leads to cats following her to school and gets her in trouble), and live mice in her shoe locker (which is just freaky). While helping clean up after school, she complains about the gifts to the Assistant to the King of Cats, and complains about her relationship problems at the time. The Assistant offers to deal with that for her, and match her up with the Prince of Cats – without listening, she agrees.
However, once she realizes what she’s done, she’s directed to the “Cat Bureau” run by The Baron (who was introduced in Whisper of the Heart), who agrees to help get her out of this – and the remainder of the story ensues.
I really enjoyed this film – it’s a very well put together coming-of-age adventure romp, though it’s not without some faults. Haru has a lot less agency than most of Miyazaki’s other female protagonists – spending most of the film reacting rather than acting, and having to be rescued rather than rescuing herself. There are exceptions – she certainly makes choices on her own behalf, and she makes a few important observations that help lead to our protagonists extricating themselves from various situations.
However, when she gets into bad situations (whether situations that are perilous or negative), she generally has to be extricated by the actions of someone else (often The Baron, but not always). To the credit of writer Reiko Yoshida and the film’s director, there are legitimate textual and metatextual reasons for this. The textual reasons are that the means of escape are often related to information that Haru simply doesn’t have access to.
The metatextual reasons are related to the fact that the writer envisioned this story as being written by the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart about the character of The Baron. In other words, the story of The Cat Returns is as much about Haru as Big Trouble in Little China is about Jack Burton. While Jack and Haru are both one of the protagonists of their respective stories, they aren’t the main protagonist – they’re viewpoint characters. Their role is to give the audience perspective of the world’s they’re going into.
That said, I still would have preferred if Haru had more of an active role in the story – once she meets Yuki and she and the audience learn that Yuki works at the palace, I would have liked if Yuki had come onboard as an equal supporting character if not on par with The Baron, than on par with Muta, in terms of providing Haru assistance in her escape – like finding a way to provide her information about how to escape, so that Haru is looking for that opportunity when The Baron makes his appearance again.
Sadly, director Hiroyuki Morita has only directed one other work of anime – and it wasn’t for Ghibli. He directed the incredibly dark super robot anime Bokurano, before returning to working in Key Animation, most recently working with Polygon Pictures on Knights of Sidonia, Ajin, and the new Godzilla anime film series. He has worked with Studio Ghibli a few more times as an animator as well – working on Tales of Earthsea, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
On the other hand, writer Reiko Yoshida has a ton of other series and films under her belt, including Girls Und Panzer and its OVAs and films, the film version of A Silent Voice, and most recently the currently airing Violet Evergarden and Hakumei and Mikochi.