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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Cat Returns: A great use of ten minutes

Posted By on 06.28.12 at 01:12 PM

An early shot of a suburban street in The Cat Returns
  • An early shot of a suburban street in The Cat Returns
The Studio Ghibli retrospective currently underway at the Gene Siskel Film Center is the one foolproof source of movie entertainment this summer. Even the weakest of Ghibli’s animated features—like The Cat Returns, which plays again tonight at 6:15 PM—stands heads above an American studio production like Shrek or The Lorax. It isn’t just the lack of cynicism that distinguishes these films (some of the only contemporary movies that children and adults can appreciate on the same level), but the personalized care that goes into their creation. Ghibli’s commitment to hand-drawn animation has been rightly celebrated, and you can sense the meticulous creation process in the films' development of characterization, mystery, and suspense.

Consider the first few minutes of Cat Returns. After a couple of opening shots, the film introduces the heroine, Haru, a preteen girl living in a suburban home with her mother. Her alarm fails to wake her up in time for school, and her mother calls to her from the foyer of the house. From the overhead shot, we see five pairs of shoes, a couple umbrellas, and a cheap-looking throw rug; in a subsequent shot, we see the mother's neatly ordered bookshelves, which line the small den next to the kitchen. These images of middle-class domesticity are comforting in their familiarity, and the muted colors and department store decor convey an authenticity that many live-action films lack.

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The next scene, which shows Haru running to junior high school, is no less authentic. The narrow streets, packed-together storefronts, and benign mass of pedestrian traffic create a precise impression of Japanese suburban life. (I once spent a couple weeks in Kyoto and its suburbs, and these images triggered a rush of vivid memories.) Human activity abounds—and, this being a Ghibli production, so does plant life—yet there's a feeling of order to it all. More importantly, the rich detail suggests another, less evident order waiting to be inspected. The environment seems at once familiar and pregnant with possibility. When, five minutes into the film, Haru encounters a talking cat who walks on his hind legs, the development doesn’t seem that strange. Director Hiroyuki Morita and his animators have prepared viewers to expect the unexpected with a magical presentation of real life.

This approach is comparable to that of French director Jacques Rivette, whose unique movie fantasies (like Celine and Julie Go Boating and The Gang of Four) gradually enter into dream narratives from starting points of heightened mundanity. The first major set piece of The Cat Returns, which occurs about ten minutes in, feels like a Rivettean fantasy in miniature. Haru awakens in the middle of the night to a sound coming from the end of her street. We see a master shot of the street: a few orbs of blue light hover in the distance, recalling the modest lamp hanging over Haru's dinner table in the previous scene. A few quick shots present house cats meowing at the strange signal and running off their porches to inspect it; in a moment, Haru goes to her window to inspect it as well.

It's a masterful succession of images, tickling the viewer's curiosity with the characters' curiosity. The fantasy emerges little by little—through hesitant, feline steps, if you will—until the floodgates open. At exactly ten minutes into the film, we're treated to the first grand triumph of imagination: a procession of cats walking on their hind legs, overseen by the Cat King, who's come to invite Haru to the Kingdom of Cats. The movie's fantasy feels earned.

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