This week is the 30th anniversary of one of the most influential studios in history and they’re celebrating with two brand new Blu-rays.
Ever since Disney started releasing Studio Ghibli films (and the filmography of Hayao Miyazaki specifically), we’ve been waiting for the undisputed masterpiece Spirited Away to come to Blu-ray. And now it has, along with another Ghibli film, The Cat Returns.
Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away, his follow-up to 1997’s Princess Mononoke, was the filmmaker’s exploration of some pretty dark subject matter that had affected him greatly, namely a report on child trafficking and the sex trade. While he obviously couldn’t make a film about that directly, those themes (children ending up in a scary, unknown world and having their identity stolen from them), are certainly present. But, because it’s Miyazaki and he’s a master of fantasy worlds, it became a story of a young girl whose parents get turned into pigs and who has to work in a bathhouse for ghosts and demons in a spirit world, lest she fade from existence. It’s seriously some scary stuff.
To me, Spirited Away has always felt like a Japanese take on Alice in Wonderland; the world in which the lead heroine, a young girl in both, enters is frightening but also sort of magical. She’s meant to do things that a child should never have to do in order to survive/escape, and there’s a looming threat of death from a very large and imposing matriarchal figure — the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Yubaba in Spirited Away. The difference here, of course, is that Miyazaki gives true allies to his protagonist who legitimately care about her and want to help, as opposed to the mostly-unhelpful figures for Alice of the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit.
Though a much lesser work, The Cat Returns features many of the same themes. It was directed by longtime Ghibli animator, Hiroyuki Morita (his only directorial effort), from a story by Miyazaki. It came out the year after Spirited Away and was a sort of spinoff to the 1995 Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart. This movie features another young girl, though slightly older than before, who lives in the real world and who is constantly dreaming of other places. One day, she saves a cat with a present in its mouth from being hit by a truck and, to her shock and surprise, the cat stands up on its hind legs and thanks her for saving him. The following day, another cat arrives at her house to tell her that she saved the prince of the Cat Kingdom and the King of Cats is so happy and grateful that he’s allowing her to marry the prince. Naturally, the girl doesn’t want to marry a cat.
A dream tells her to go see a big white cat in the town square for help. She goes and finds this large cat who, reluctantly, brings her with him to a magical crossroads where a cat statue wearing a tuxedo and top hat comes alive and tells her his name is the Baron and that he will help her. Unfortunately, while they’re coming up with a plan, an army of cats from the Cat Kingdom arrive and take the girl to their world, where she’s suddenly of relative size to the other cats, and even slowly starts to become a cat. It’s up to the Baron and the girl herself to get out of the Kingdom before it’s too late and she’s a cat forever.
Obviously Miyazaki had girls being put in peril and having to save themselves with the help of magical beings on the brain. While Spirited Away explores these themes a little bit more effectively, they both offer a lot of enjoyable scenes and memorable characters.
Each of these Blu-rays features Disney’s usual gorgeous video transfer and sound upgrading. There are both Japanese and English language tracks (though the English track is always the default, because that’s how Disney does), and they feature extras, though most of which were just from the original DVD releases.
While Spirited Away is clearly a wonderful and beautiful piece of work that deserves to be watched and viewed many, many times, The Cat Returns is worthy, if pretty goofy, entry in the Ghibli canon and should be added to the collection as well.