Netflix dips its toes into that most Japanese of film forms, anime, with “A Whisker Away,” a charming, whimsical fantasy that you’d never guess came from the country that gave us “Hello Kitty.”
It’s a body-switch tale about a manic teenage girl who obsesses over a boy, and is lured into getting close to him by taking the guise of a cat.
Miyo (voiced by Mirai Shida in Japanese, with English subtitles) is impulsive and given to acting out. Her mother left her father, and dad’s new live-in girlfriend is a bit young and green to be stepping into mothering.
Miyo crushes on classmate Hinode (Natsuki Hanae). Hard. As in hip-check in hockey or hoops hard. “Sunrise attack!” she shrieks, tumbling into him each morning at school. She can’t tell how embarrassed he is by this.
Maybe the nickname everybody else in school has given her should be her clue. “MUGE, Miss Ultra Gaga Enigmatic.”
Her 14-15 year old problems get the best of her, and she confesses “I hate this stupid world. I wish it would end soon.”
But this Buddha-sized cat she runs into sells cat masks. All she has to do is lend him her “human face mask” and she can see the world through cat’s eyes — literally.
As “Taro” she can get close to Hinode and see his life. She can also leap off roofs into trees, something she takes to doing as Miyo, putting the mask on mid-flight.
Of course, there’s a catch to becoming a cute cat. Several catches, beginning with “I need to wipe my butt” issues and carrying on through to the REAL cost of this “exchange.”
Studio Clorido (a “Pokeman” anime, and “Penguin Highway”) did the animation here, and while it isn’t as rich as the best Studio Ghibli outings, the detail and effects are better than your average TV anime.
Mari Okada’s script is a winner, offering up the usual slices-of-Japanese-life (“festivals,” meals, cats and school life). I wasn’t nuts about the finale, but the Fat Cat with the Masks is a grand creation, and the fanciful alternate world of cats, complete with a “Human Car Bar,” is wonderfully imaginative.
Cats have little more trouble slipping into human guises than humans becoming cats.
The movie may be mostly about teen love, but there are all these subtexts — adored pets and adoring pets who crave sharing their shorter lives with their one human, pet mortality.
The West may have long regarded the East as “inscrutable.” In Japan, they save that word for felines, who come off here as reserved, loyal, observant and aloof. On the money, to anybody who’s ever shared a life with a cat.
Money well spent, Netflix. Let’s see what else you’ve got.
MPAA Rating: TV-PG, fear, violence, smoking.
Cast: The voices of Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Susumu Chiba.
Credits: Directed by Jun’ichi Satô, Tomotaka Shibayama, script by Mari Okada. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:44