The Japanese title of the anime movie A Whisker Away, now on Netflix, translates to Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat. That original version is both more literal and more unwieldy, but it comes closer to capturing the film’s spirit. A high level of whimsy is guaranteed from a story about a girl who gains the ability to turn into a cat, mostly for the sake of getting closer to her crush. But A Whisker Away isn’t just interested in romance. The film, directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, is also a coming-of-age story, as the characters learn how to communicate with each other and reckon with emotional pain.
Miyo (Mirai Shida) is known to her high school classmates as Muge, short for “Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic.” She certainly lives up to that nickname. When she spots her crush, Hinode (Natsuki Hanae), the world becomes pink, and all other people become scarecrows. Rather than just calling out to him to say hello, she flings herself at him rear-first, butt-bumping him in a move she calls the “Hinode Sunrise Attack.” Though he does his best to ignore her, she’s undeterred, swooning over the few words he does toss her way.
That behavior accounts for “ultra” and “gaga,” but not “enigmatic.” Her classmates have tacked the descriptor on because she shares so little of her home life. Her complications there are clear from the film’s beginning, as Miyo experiences a dream (or is it a flashback?) of her younger self wandering among anthropomorphic cat people. Abruptly, the scene shifts to Miyo’s present-day self arguing with and fleeing her mother, who won’t stop asking Miyo about her father’s marriage to a new woman. Miyo’s reticence and frustration are a stark contrast to her bubbliness at school, raising the question of how much of the Muge personality is real, and how much is an act to help Miyo cope with her fracturing family.
Taking on a new life as a cat seems like a perfect opportunity, and it’s granted to Miyo by a mask salesman who appears as she wishes aloud that she could escape her life. On top of that, Hinode actually seems to like her when she’s in feline form. Dubbing her “Taro,” he pets, feeds, and confides in her. As it turns out, Hinode is having some trouble at home, too.
Though Hinode and Miyo’s romance drives most of the film, it’s also the least interesting thing about A Whisker Away. Beginning with the fact that Miyo’s conduct toward Hinode could constitute harassment (at one point, she even asks him to record a voice memo for her, saying it’ll give her amazing dreams), their relationship feels thin, especially in comparison to the more nuanced portrayals of their respective home lives. The film takes a subtler approach to showing Miyo’s feelings about her stepmother and mother, revealing them mostly in passing moments, such as how polite Miyo is to her stepmother, while ending or escaping their conversations as quickly as possible.
The theme of trying to escape sad feelings becomes more complicated when Miyo loses her human face after a particularly bad day, and is told that unless she retrieves it soon, she’ll remain a cat forever. In other words, her transformations aren’t a harmless recourse, and the effects ripple out to her family and friends, and to Hinode, too.
The bright, summery animation helps keep the story from feeling too grim, with a dreamy haze cast over the action. That softness, however, doesn’t lessen the sharpness of the action, as everything from Muge’s outsized gestures to the twitches of her ears as a cat are animated with care. The combined efforts of Studio Colorido, Toho Animation, and Twin Engine really take off toward the film’s end, as Miyo’s quest to get her human face back leads her into otherworldly territory, sending characters flying and floating through richly detailed new worlds.
So while the cats may be the initial draw in this film — they’re all incredibly cute in animal form, and visually fascinating in anthropomorphic form — what really makes A Whisker Away worth watching is its dissection of growing up enough to face difficult feelings head-on and to think seriously about other people’s emotions as well. The film is at its most truthful when it’s showing its characters struggling to convey how they feel, especially when what they want to say might seriously disrupt the status quo. Though abandoning humanity in favor of being a cat might seem like an easy way to avoid difficult situations, sometimes it’s best to let the tears out.
A Whisker Away is streaming on Netflix now.