Review of a Whisker Away, Directed by Junichi Sato
–Guest blog by Rebecca Holland
A Whisker Away (2020), directed by Junichi Sato, is a Japanese movie about a middle school girl who turns into a cat, and uses her feline alter ego to impress her crush. Released by Studio Colorido, this animated feature originally intended to have a theatrical release. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release plan was scrapped, and the rights to the movie were sold to Netflix. It is now available as a Netflix Original for English audiences in two versions: in the original Japanese with subtitles in English, or with a completely English voiceover.
The movie follows Miyo Sasaki, a high-spirited girl from Tokoname, Japan. She lives with her father and stepmother after her mother walks out, spends her middle school days with her best friend Yoriko, and has a not-so-secret crush on fellow student Kento. At a lantern festival, she stumbles across a mysterious, talking cat who offers her a magical Noh mask. When she discovers the mask turns her into a cat, she uses the disguise to get close to her crush, who quickly falls in love with what he thinks is an adorable stray kitty, believing it is a sign that his beloved, and recently deceased, pet dog is looking out for him from above. When Miyo begins to dream of leaving her human problems behind, for the carefree to live as a cat, the mask seller offers her a choice: she can give up her human life and live as a cat forever.
As a cat lover, I can strongly relate to the appeal of a cat’s life: trouble-free, cozy, and full of cuddles. Imagine being able to nap the days away, soak up the sun’s rays, and having beloved humans to snuggle up with. It’s the dream, right? Many of us can also relate to having the kind of difficult human emotions, and troubles, that would make it appealing to retreat and live entirely as a cat instead. How the movie tackles those issues is perhaps the most interesting thing about it, because it doesn’t shy away from the darker moments, some of which are intense. When Miyo becomes overwhelmed, she runs away, and toys with leaving her human life behind entirely. We also meet some cats who decided to live their lives at cats instead. They muse on how they ran away from their problems, but regret it, and wish they still had their human lives. Those kinds of realisations and reflections make this a serious movie, considering the amount of furry felines it has.
Source: A Whiskery Away–Studio Colorido, Netflix, 2020
The movie is rated PG, with warnings for bullying, sexual references, and violence. Compared to other movies about cats, like The Cat Returns (2002), the content feels more adult in nature, and it’s a movie that deserves a more thorough set of content warnings. The themes tackle the desire to leave a human life behind, and although there are no explicit mentions of suicide, there is that implicit suggestion behind the intense emotional pain, with people who chose to remain as a cat saying “I no longer wanted to be human”. It is also not particularly humorous, with no laugh-out-loud moments or comic relief characters. Each character is going on an intense emotional journey, and the other characters are worried adults, and a cat who happily lets people trade away their life force to live out their lives as a cat.
That makes the title choice an interesting one. The original Japanese tile translated loosely to “Wanting To Cry, I Pretend To Be A Cat”, which gives a much better feel than A Whisker Away, which evokes a more whimsical tale. For those reasons, although the movie is rated PG, I would say the movie is better suited to older children, aged 12+. It’s a useful avenue to open up discussions about difficult emotions, and I think younger children would lose interest in the more adult storyline. It is also particularly well suited for cat lovers who want to see a story that illuminates the human-animal bond without cutesy fluff, and shallow laughs. It hones in on the emotions of sadness and overwhelm with a razor sharpness that hits home. There’s even a part of the story told from the perspective of a cat-turned-human, and the lengths our beloved pets would go to for their owners (and this part is likely to be a tearjerker for cat lovers).
Did I mention there’s a secret island of cats in this movie? Shh, don’t tell anyone.
Genre: Japanese animated movie
Who should watch this film: Older children and adults who have considered the appeal of living life as a cat, and for those endlessly fascinated by the love in human-animal bonds
Who should not watch this film: younger children may lose interest in this movie, and the more adult themes aren’t well suited to that age range
The takeaway: The human-animal bond is strong in this story about the lengths a human would go for a cat, and vice versa, and how the life of cats fascinates cat lovers.
More about the author, Rebecca Holland
Rebecca Holland is a writer from the UK. She’s an animal lover with a soft spot for purring cats, especially when she’s reading, and loves nothing more than a good book with animal companions. Check out some of Rebecca’s other work at VelvetOpus.com and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.