In 1999 Studio Ghibli was approached by the owners of a theme park who wanted a 20 minute animated short subject featuring cats. Hayao Miyazaki thought it should feature the cat characters from the movie Whisper of the Heart, so he went to Aoi Hiiragi, the author of the original manga, and asked her to write the story. She did, and it was eventually published as a manga called BARON: Neko no Danshaku (Baron: The Cat Baron).
However the deal with the amusement park fell through, so plans to make the anime were put on hold. Miyazaki, who was trying to nurture a new generation of anime directors, started to assign aspiring directors the task of drawing storyboards for the defunct “Cat Project”. A young artist named Hiroyuki Morita produced a massive set of storyboards that was so impressive that he was given the go-ahead to create a full-length movie.
The resulting movie is bound to interest any fan of Whisper of the Heart, even though it is not a sequel to that movie and the style is quite different. WOTH was a fairly realistic coming-of-age story, while this is a classic fairy tale. Aoi Hiiragi thinks of this as a story written by Shizuku, the heroine of the earlier movie, and that’s probably the best way to view it.
Neko no Ongaeshi (The Cat’s Repayment)
English, French, Japanese with subtitles
75 minutes plus bonus material in a 2-DVD set.
A manga by Aoi Hiiragi
Region 1 Publisher
Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Some elements of this story may be disturbing to young children. I think it should be OK for any child old enough to read the subtitles (whether or not you play it with subtitles.) If your children are younger than that, it might be a good idea to preview it before letting them watch it.
Premise and Characters
is a 17 year old high school student. She is deliberately presented as an ordinary girl: nice enough, but rather shy and awkward, less dynamic and strong-willed than the typical Miyazaki heroine.
While walking home from school with her friend Hiromi
, Haru notices a cat carrying a package in its mouth.
The cat walks into the street, right in front of a truck.
Haru runs after it an manages to scoop it up with Hiromi’s lacrosse stick.
They both end up in the bushes on the other side of the street. The cat picks himself up, brushes himself off, and thanks Haru in elegant Japanese. Then he runs off.
Haru tells Hiromi that the cat could talk. Hiromi asks if she hit her head.
That night Haru is awakened by a strange noise outside. She runs outside and sees a procession of cats carrying a large cat with a crown in a strange wheelbarrow-like sedan chair.
The officious cat wearing glasses is Natori
, Secretary to the King of the Cats
. He tells her that the cat she rescued was Prince Lune
, the King’s son.
, the King’s Secretary tells her that she is to be rewarded with a great quantity of gifts.
When Haru wakes up the next morning,
she thinks that it must have been a dream, but she is wrong. The gifts start arriving, but unfortunately they seem ill-chosen. Her yard is filled with foxtails (nekojarashi
: “cat teasers”)…
…and her shoe locker at school is filled with gift-wrapped mice.
She has cleanup duty after school. When carrying the trash outside she sees Machida
, the boy she has a crush on, with a girl who is obviously his new girlfriend.
Upset and distracted, she trips and spills the trash.
Natoru chooses that moment to reappear. He apologizes for the bad gifts, but he has good news. The King of the Cats has decided to bring her to the Cat Kingdom and marry her to his beloved son, Prince Lune.
Still depressed about the boy, Haru wonders whether she might be better off living in the Cat Kingdom. Natoru takes this for agreement. He tells her the cats will come to collect her tonight, and runs off again.
Haru realizes that
she has a problem–she doesn’t want to marry a cat! She hears a mysterious voice that tells her she should seek the help of the “Cat Bureau”. To find the Cat Bureau she should go to the “crossroads” and ask a large white cat for directions.
In a nearby shopping district she finds a large, white and very fat cat whose name is Muta
. When she asks him about the Cat Bureau, he tells her to follow him.
He leads her on a complicated route through alleys and over rooftops, eventually arriving in a plaza surrounded by miniature buildings.
Through the window of a small antiques shop she can see a small cat figurine with glowing eyes.
As the sun sets, the cat figurine comes to life, and introduces himself as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen
, the head of the Cat Bureau.
He explains that this is a place where artistic creations take on a life of their own.
A statue of a crow comes to life. The Baron introduces him as Toto
The Baron listens to Haru’s story and agrees to help her, but warns her that whatever happens she must believe in herself.
Just then a horde of cats burst in and drag Haru off to the Cat Kingdom.
Muta pursues the horde and manages to catch up.
The Baron and Toto take off in pursuit but are left behind.
Arriving in the Cat Kingdom, Haru and Muta are separated from the cat horde. They meet a beautiful white cat named Yuki
, who warns Haru that she needs to escape from the Cat Kingdom as quickly as possible.
At that point Natoru reappears and hussles Haru and Muta off to the palace. Will Haru be able to escape and find her way home, or will she be doomed to spend the rest of her life as a cat princess?
Aoi Hiiragi’s manga is published in English by Viz Media under the title Baron: The Cat Returns.
ANN Encyclopedia entry.