What would you do if you could turn yourself into a cat?
Would you take the opportunity to laze around all day, staring into the distance like there’s no tomorrow? Would you go around terrorizing the small creatures that exist in the crevices of your home? Would you take to the streets and become a gangsta, strutting down the tarmac with Dre tunes as your personal anthems? There are a variety of options to choose from, you know. That is the very question that the new original Netflix anime, A Whisker Away, poses. And well, you could choose to… umm… stalk your crush?
A Whisker Away is a product of Studio Colorido, which is responsible for films like Typhoon Noruda and Penguin Highway. It was originally meant to have a theatrical release this month but alas, circumstances forced the cat to claw its way onto our small instead. Indeed, I find it amusing that the Japanese title of this film is Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu which translates to “Wanting to Cry, I Turn Into A Cat”. Taken out of context, it’s a weird premise but I assure you it’s not. Let’s take a look.
The plot centres on Miyo Sasaki (Mirai Shida), a teenage girl who is wildly infatuated with a boy in her class named Kento Hinode (Natsuki Hanae). Alas, her feelings are not reciprocated, with Hinode constantly shrugging off her advancements, displaying little to no enthusiasm in her efforts. So, when she is presented with the fine opportunity of transforming into a feline to get close to her crush, she leaps at it.
Miyo’s peers at school dub her “Muge”, an acronym for “Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic”, due to her exuberant demeanour. And yeah, she neither disapproves nor disproves that moniker with her rash decisions to get her crush to notice her. Miyo even has a particular move called the Hinode Sunrise during which she would charge at Hinode and attempt to bump him on the buttock. Her cringe-inducing obsession might be uncanny to others but she does not give a damn about it.
However, let’s take a closer look at Miyo. What’s her deal? How is she so jovial all the time?
Well, the truth is… she’s not.
When we are first introduced to her in the film, she is at a festival with her biological mother, who tries to persuade her to leave her father’s house. Her mother expresses her dissent at the new woman in the house to whom Miyo’s father might already be betrothed to. As such, Miyo runs away. Away from the idea. Away from her problems. Away from having to be human.
As she walks down a solitary path illuminated by the stars, she happens upon a Noh mask seller (who looks just like Jabba the Hutt if he was a cat. So, I’m just gonna call the dude “Jabba the Cat” from now on). He gives her a chance to redefine her life as a free-roaming cat as long as she puts the mask on. As such, she signs a deal with the devil.
So, what does Miyo do with that newfound identity?
She utilises it as a Trojan horse to infiltrate the Hinode household, collect DNA samples from Hinode, and cook up a couple of Hinode clones from the lab in her home. Alright, that last part was a lie, but Miyo does attempt to get as close to Hinode as possible in this snow-white form. When she first appears to Hinode, he immediately swoons over the cat, thinking that she is a reincarnation of his late dog, Taro. And I can’t really blame him. I mean:
Oh, you’re still not convinced? How about this?
GAH!! WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT! LOOK AT HOW CUTE SHE IS! Those blue bug-eyes and soft fluffy white fur on that minuscule frame demand your utmost love and care for this fictional cat-fu because she is just too darn adorable!!!!!
It’s easy to see why Hinode would be obsessed with his newfound pet. However, what he does not know is the real identity of said feline. Miyo takes this opportunity to scope out his desires and dreams as Hinode begins to find solace in Taro. The treatment provided by Hinode to Taro is a stark contrast to the cold shoulder he gives Miyo at school. As such, Miyo relishes her time as Taro, recognising it as an escape from reality, and a solution for her teenage crush issues.
As far as deals with the devil go, rest assured, there is a catch. As Miyo dives deeper into her dual-life as a human and a stray, the lines between both begin to smudge. Miyo’s eccentrics become even more daring due to her alter-ego. During one instance, she risks one of her nine lives and actually jumps off a ledge just to confront two boys who badmouth her crush. Eventually, she dives off the deep end as Jabba the Cat presents her with an ultimatum: sacrifice her humanity or retain it.
A Whisker Away’s coming of age story might be bizarre but it does capture those moments of an irrational puppy (kitty in this movie) love extraordinarily well. That, the rash emotions, obsession, and angst accompanying puberty make it land on its four feet. However, it also deals with the nature of humanity and the various masks we put on when interacting with different individuals. It highlights the dangers of not being true to yourself and the pitfalls of attempting to be someone or something you are not.
In the case of this film, Miyo may have leapt at the chance of another life. The draw of running away from her problems and assuming the carefree life of a cute kitten loved by everyone was an enticing offer. Nonetheless, this form of escapism lacked an application of logic and was driven purely on emotion. And as the plot unravels, the dark side of the white cat begins to manifest, and we see Jabba the Cat return to taunt Miyo from time to time. Similarly, another subplot involving Miyo’s stepmom’s cat, who wants to become human instead, further drives the nails of this message into the scratching post.
The look of this film does capture the kookiness of the cat world well enough with its surreal imagery and gloriously detailed animation. At the climax of the film, there is an ethereal depiction of a cat island, which I thought was well done in its execution and style, somehow, invoking a little sens of Spirited Away. However, “overexposed” frames do tend to be overused, and after a series of such, it did take me out of the film as it was rather distracting. However, said device did serve a purpose at certain times to create a sense of giddiness and wonder just like the scene below.
Overall, A Whisker Away is a cute and convivial exaggeration on personal identity intertwined with adolescent curiosity and impulsiveness. Both Miyo and Hinode go through separate journeys to find themselves, facing the various ups and downs, and braving illogical circumstances that test their emotions. But at the heart of it all, it’s the pure quest for acceptance, especially by one another, that eventually leads to the purr-fect Hinode Sunrise.
A Whisker Away is now streaming on Netflix.