Movie review: 'A Whisker Away' (2020)
A Whisker Away (trailer) is an anime film about a young Japanese teenager who gains the ability to turn into a cat. Released in the summer of 2020, it was written by Mari Okada, directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, and animated by Studio Colorido. Its original title is Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu, which translates to "Wanting to cry, I pretend to be a cat".
The main protagonist is a girl in her early teens, nicknamed Muge. She's madly in love with Hinode, a boy in her class who doesn't appreciate her advances. One night, she encounters a mysterious anthropomorphic feline who offers to sell her a magical mask. With it, Muge can turn into a cat and spend time with Hinode, getting to know him better. As she switches back and forth, she begins to wonder if she'd prefer to be a cat, rather than a human - but doesn't know what it might cost her.
Judging by online discussions, this is a film that polarizes its audience over Muge's character. I can relate, I disliked her in under ten minutes. It boils down to whether you find her behavior towards Hinode to be awkward and romantic, or obnoxious and self-centered. I fell squarely into the latter camp, but I can understand how Muge can be seen the other way, or as a mixture of both. However, if you reversed their genders, Muge would definitely come off as a creepy stalker.
What saved the film for me was its second half, where three things happen. First, we get a little backstory about why Muge acts the way she does. Secondly, the plot finally kicks into high gear, with more action and less of Muge's personal issues. Thirdly, things get furry! I mean, things were already furry in the beginning. We meet the Mask Seller very early, and Muge spends a lot of screen time as a cat. But in the last third of the film, we get to visit an entire hidden realm of cats!
Still, for an audience of furry fans, I think A Whisker Away is going to be a bit disappointing. Although it's technically furry, I feel it's far less so in terms of a theatrical experience? I'm not sure how to put this into words. For the escapism of what being an animal might be like, Muge doesn't develop feline instincts, and decides to embrace her humanity. For people interested in alternate worlds, the cat realm is mostly a visual backdrop, and we don't really learn about it. For those interested in transformation, it happens in a flash of light, off-screen.
While the cat realm is definitely trying to evoke an other-worldliness like Spirited Away, the first half of the film felt very... mundane, even with magic. The animation didn't hit me as strongly as Studio Colorido's earlier film, Penguin Highway. The love story didn't really work for me until the end, because it was so difficult to sympathize with Muge at the beginning.
And despite how I'm describing it, I think this is an ok film! I'd give it a solid 7 out of 10. However, I'd say the experience is way more anime than furry. Underneath, you'll find a story about being open with your emotions instead of masking them, and about how people want to feel loved and appreciated.
But if you want furry anime with cats, I would much more recommend 2002's The Cat Returns (trailer). It, too, has a teenager who turns into a cat. It's got an alternate realm of cats, and the main character decides to stay human. And yet watching it, it's just so much more, well... furry! If you're in the mood for anime, A Whisker Away will fill some time. If you're in the mood for furry anime, watch The Cat Returns.