“The mask is not for you, it’s to protect the people you care about.” –Bruce Wayne to Robin, The Dark Knight Rises
Amidst her parents separating, Miyo Sasaki encounters a mysterious Merchant who gives her a noh mask that transforms her into a white cat with striking blue eyes. Later, Miyo develops a crush on her classmate, Kento Hinode, after encountering him while she is transformed. Despite her best efforts to draw his attention at school, her efforts always fail. Miyo is unperturbed, since the noh mask she acquired allows her to freely transform into a white cat: she visits Kento every evening as a cat, and he comes to name her Tarō, his old dog who’d passed away. The two share numerous moments together, and with each visit, Miyo falls deeper in love with Kento, but also worries that, were he to discover Tarō’s true identity, he would outright reject her. When Miyo overhears some classmates badmouthing Kento, she leaps to intervene and injures her ankle. Kento and Miyo appear to get closer when he offers to share his lunch with her, and that night, Miyo overhears, as Tarō, that the Hinode family is closing their pottery shop. She decides to make her feelings to him known, but this fails, and in embarrassment, Kento rebuffs her. Her heart broken, Miyo decides it would be better to spend her life as a cat, and the Merchant appears, retrieving her human face and promising her a paradise ahead. With her human form gone, Miyo’s missing, prompting her parents and friends to go looking for her. As Tarō, Miyo discovers that Kento did not mean what he’d said to her after her botched kokuhaku and is seized with regret; she no longer wishes to be a cat. When she encounters Kinako, who’d been her stepmother’s cat, Miyo learns that Kinako wanted to extend her lifespan and spend time with Miyo’s stepmother: she’s the one with Miyo’s mask now. Miyo pushes in towards a special place for cats and discovers a vast island in the sky in search of the Merchant, hoping to persuade him to restore her to normal. She comes across a pub whose patrons were formerly human. Meanwhile, having seen how fulfilling her life had been, Kinako decides to help Miyo out, bringing Kento with her. Upon arriving on the island, Kinako and Kento locate the Merchant’s quarters but find themselves ensnared. Miyo manages to help them escape, but the Merchant is hot on their heels, eventually capturing them and bringing them to a special area where he can begin the transaction. The Merchant overpowers Kenta, Miyo and Kinako despite their combined efforts, but the other cats, resentful of their decision, intervene to stop the process. As Miyo and Kento express their feelings for one another, Miyo is returned to her human form.
Released on June 18 via Netflix, A Whisker Away (Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu, literally “Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat”) is an anime film whose theatrical release was disrupted by the global health crisis, and instead, would see a digital distribution that made it much more accessible for overseas viewers. During its 104 minute-long runtime, A Whisker Away is a compelling and touching film about the nature of relationships, specifically, how they are necessarily built on truth if they are to thrive. At A Whisker Away‘s beginning, Miyo uses the noh mask to escape her reality, one that is characterised by a troubled family. This brings her to a chance meeting with Kento, whom she falls in love with. However, Miyo is unable to be forwards about the fact that she is Tarō, and similarly, typically forces herself to put on a smile to mask her own unhappiness. In this way, the noh mask and Miyo’s resultant transformation into a cat becomes a symbol of escape into blissful oblivion. Kento is depicted as having a similar problem, being unable to speak up about his love of pottery, which stands contrary to his mother’s wish for him to attend a good high school and enter a professional, financially secure occupation. Struggling with their own desires and attempting to conform to expectations around them, both Miyo and Kento discover, through the course of A Whisker Away, that their problems can only be confronted head-on. The sum of their experiences on the cat island and the realisation of what matters to them, lead both Miyo and Kento to be open about their feelings towards one another. In this way, Miyo and Kento both grow, coming to understand that unresolved problems must be addressed, not hidden away. Being forwards with their love for one another creates a tangible change in the pair: in the credits, it is shown that Miyo’s become more sociable at school and more accepting of her stepmother, while Kento decides to pursue a career as a potter. With Kento and Miyo both being able to properly express how they feel now, A Whisker Away leaves viewers on a strong note, indicating that the pair are in a better position to pursue a relationship than they had been entering the film.
Screenshots and Commentary
- A Whisker Away was originally was set for a standard run in Japanese cinema on June 5, but the global health crisis eventually resulted in its release to Netflix. Instead of seeing A Whisker Away somewhere in 2021, this meant I was able to watch it more recently. Prior to the film’s release, some folks expressed that, because Mari Okada was involved in writing it, that viewers should go in with caution. I’ve never understood the beef people have with Okada: of her works that I’ve seen, I’ve enjoyed all of them. Her impressive resume includes Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, The Anthem of the Heart, AnoHana, Nagi no Asukara and even Koufuku Grafitti.
- While it’s true that Okada’s True Tears was a Glasslip-level debacle, this one work alone does not define her career, and irrational hatred of a creator is something I find gratuitous, unnecessary. Out of the gates, the first song on A Whisker Away‘s soundtrack was a bit grating to the ears for its use of horns. I imagine that this was deliberate, to present Miyo as being very spirited and energetic. The remainder of the soundtrack is quite varied, capturing both the more sentimental moments alongside the surreal experiences Miyo and Kento have.
- Miyo is referred to as Muge throughout A Whisker Away: rendered as ムゲ, it’s a shorthand for “無限大謎人間” (Hepburn mugendai nazo ningen, literally “endlessly mysterious person”). It’s an insult, to be sure, but one with a modicum of respect: Yoriko Fukase, Miyo’s best friend also refers to her as such, and Miyo never seems to take offense it. However, Netflix chooses to render it as the backronym “Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic”. I found this backronym to sound more derogatory, and feel that a proper translation would likely have Miyo being called “Mysterio” instead.
- For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to Miyo by her given name. I do this for consistency in my reviews, as well as for the fact that it is more respectful to the characters and their experience as the story progresses. In this case, my assumption is that as A Whisker Away continues, Miyo will become decreasingly enigmatic to viewers. However, initially, it does appear that her nickname holds true: once classes ends, Miyo rushes off into her room and locates the noh mask that transforms her into a cat with white fur and strikingly beautiful blue eyes.
- Kento Hinode is Miyo’s classmate and is generally a quiet, reserved individual at school. However, it is shown that Kento is under a great deal of pressure: as the next male in the family after his father had passed away, he is expected to be the breadwinner. His mother constantly pushes him to excel academically so that he may enter a prestigious high school and university to secure his future, but Kento’s aspiration is to take on the family business and become a potter, the same as his grandfather.
- While Kento’s mother continues to push him, his older sister, Yumi, has a much more blasé and lazy attitude towards life: throughout the movie, she’s seen lazing around, reading magazines and messing with her phone, only reluctantly helping out with minor household work when needed. Yumi does not play a substantial role in A Whisker Away, but the secondary characters all serve an important purpose in helping put Miyo and Kento’s actions in context. In this case, Yumi emphasises the sort of stress and difficulties that Kento faces, acting as a foil to his hard-working but quiet character.
- Set in Tokoname (Aichi Prefecture, just south of Nagoya), A Whisker Away vividly portrays chimneys of the kilns in the town. Ceramics and pottery have been a major industry in Tokoname since the Heian period, and the distinct smoke stacks seen today date back to the Meiji Restoration. While many factories were closed following the Second World War, and less-polluting methods were introduced, a handful were preserved, becoming museums today.
- When Miyo arrives, Kento greets her as Taro, the name of his old dog who’d passed away earlier. Miyo immediately takes a liking to this name, as it signifies how Kento views her cat form as being equivalent to his old pet. As Taro, Miyo visits Kento on a very frequent basis, enough so that Kento prepares fresh food for Taro whenever she visits. When Miyo recounts her experiences to Yoriko, the latter is taken aback and finds it difficult to believe that Kento could get along with her, having seen how coldly he regards Miyo. However, Miyo is referring to what happens when she’s Taro.
- As Miyo transforms briefly back into her human form while dashing across the rooftops, the evening clouds can be seen in the background. Of late, all of the anime films I’ve watched have been of an excellent standard from a visual perspective; while not quite rivalling the distinct style of Makoto Shinkai’s films, many anime movies now are a wonder to watch for the artwork alone. A Whisker Away is no different: the film looks amazing, and the cloud here is photorealistic, bringing to mind the storm clouds that mass in my area by evening as hot days draw to an end.
- Use of camera angles and spacing in A Whisker Away conveys the sense that Miyo is not accustomed to life with her stepmother: their interactions are brief, and Miyo’s lament that her stepmother’s cat, Kinako, seems cool towards her, mirrors this distance. Miyo is voiced by Mirai Shida, an actress best known for her roles in live-action drama series. Kento, on the other hand, is played by Natsuki Hanae, a voice actor I know best as Nagi no Asukara‘s Hikari Sakishima, Kōsei Arima of Your Lie in April and Aldnoah.Zero‘s Inaho Kaizuka.
- Taro’s visits are always welcome, and Kento greatly welcomes them. Being fond of Taro, he remarks that she “smells like the sun”, a very strange-sounding phrase; after all, the sun’s electromagnetic spectra is something that is seen and felt, but the chemoreceptors our nose don’t have the ability to pick up photons. However, as it turns out, this is merely a metaphor, referring to the smell of something left outside in clean air. It’s a very fresh scent, a mixture of vegetation and water, that evokes a sense of happiness. Kento is therefore referring to the idea that Taro smells clean, comforting.
- When Miyo overhears some classmates badmouthing Kento, she leaps off a sky bridge with the intent of lecturing them. Miyo begins to take on cat-like traits as a result of donning the noh mask so frequently, and therefore, can understand how to stick a landing as cats do. In real cats, the righting reflex, coupled with a cat’s low height-to-mass ratio, allows them to make safe landings from heights that would proportionally cause injury in humans. However, since Miyo is in her normal state, she counts on a tree to break her fall, and ends up spraining her ankle anyways.
- In the aftermath of such a crazy stunt, Miyo shares lunch with Kento and his friend. Miyo finds the potatoes he’s brought to be quite tasty but has trouble wording it, causing Kento to break into laughter. It’s the first time that the two share a moment together: up until now, Miyo’s only interactions with Kento are as Taro. When she tells Yoriko of these, Yoriko finds it much harder to believe, since she’s not in on the secret yet. However, Kento notes that Miyo also smells like the sun here, foreshadowing both his eventual discovery, that Taro is Miyo, and his own feelings.
- Kento’s grandfather is a professional potter, and having grown up learning this trade, Kento’s longed to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. However, with the financial situation at the Hinode household looking grim, Kento’s mother decides it’s a better idea to close the workshop and reduce expenses. Kento’s grandfather agrees, saying that he’s getting a little old to be doing his work, and Kenta finds himself unable to speak his mind as to what’s going on.
- During her evening excursions as Taro, Miyo passes through the beautifully-rendered streets of Tokoname. With a population hovering around fifty-four thousand since World War Two ended, Tokoname today continues to be a ceramics producer, but also is supplemented by commercial fishing and business. The area was chosen for A Whisker Away because director Shibayama Tomotaka hails from the area, and his familiarity with the city means that local sights are reproduced with a stunningly high accuracy.
- After hearing about Kento’s situation as Taro, Miyo decides to write a love letter to him, hoping to make her feelings to him known, as well as help to alleviate the pressure he must doubtlessly be feeling. I’ve never written a love letter before, and as such, can attest to how tricky it can be to properly put feelings into words. Of all the different reasons for written and verbal communications, declarations of love are the trickiest, made doubly so by the fact that there is so rarely the opportunity to practise this sort of communication.
- Naturally, Miyo’s kokuhaku fail thanks to the immaturity and flippance of a few immature classmates. At their age, this is understandable, since romance is still seen as dubious rather than a natural part of life. Be that as it may, it absolutely humiliates both Kento, who harshly rejects Miyo, and Miyo herself runs off in tears, less so because of what others think of her, but more from Kento’s words. Yoriko takes off after her to look out for her, but not before dealing additional damage to the boys who’ve precipitated this turn of events.
- August traditionally opens with the Heritage long weekend, and last year, I spent it building a new drawer and desk. This year, I kept things a little simpler, spending the first day of the long weekend writing blog posts and playing through Warlords of New York, as well as World of Warcraft. I also enjoyed a delicious dinner of Maggi soy sauce fried prawns, sweet and sour pork chop with mayonnaise sauce and peaches, crispy free-range chicken and satay beef on Chinese broccoli. Dinner was delicious, although owing to how warm it’s been, I wasn’t quite able to eat as much as I normally would: it’s the seventh consecutive day where it’s been above 26ºC, and the weather was warm enough such that there were thundershowers at eight in the morning on Saturday.
- Rendered inconsolable after Kento’s rejection, Miyo finally lashes out, saying she’s tired of maintaining a façade in front of her stepmother and forcing a smile. In the aftermath, she grabs her noh mask, transforms into Taro and runs away, heading for Kento’s place. Here, she learns that Kento hadn’t meant his words, but also feels that after what happened, there’s no turning back. She falls asleep, and when she wakes up the next morning, realises that as a cat, she probably won’t have to go to school.
- When the
Masketta Merchant appears and commandeers Miyo’s human mask, she becomes stuck in cat form and is unable to return home. This is what the English title is derived from: Miyo is figuratively and literally a whisker away from both being a cat, and from her love. Her conundrum now has far reaching consequences: to her parents, Miyo’s gone missing. Yoriko and Kento are pulled from class to provide information on where Miyo might’ve gone.
- Yuriko explains to Kento that she’d been friends with Miyo ever since Miyo drove off some classmates who’d been giving her a difficult time. Despite things beginning roughly for the two, Miyo and Yoriko would become friends. Yoriko feels duty-bound to look after her, and attesting to where his heart lies, Kento agrees to help search for her. The two are given permission to skip class for the day and canvas the nearby area in the hopes they may find her.
- Pandemonium ensues when Miyo is no closer to being found: Miyo’s mother lays the blame squarely on her stepmother, and things devolve into a fistfight. The weather, which had been clear and pleasant throughout the events of A Whisker Away, turns grey and moody, mirroring the characters’ feelings. I’ve long felt that weather and time of day, two visceral elements that impact the lighting in a scene, are underrepresented in anime discussions:
- When Miyo reappears, her family and classmates are shocked, but relieved. However, the Miyo here feels somewhat different than her usual self: Yoriko notices almost immediately, but to her classmates, the change is imperceptible owing to her typical propensities. It therefore speaks volumes to the depth of their friendship that Yoriko is this familiar with minute details in Miyo’s behaviour: when coupled with the fact that she genuinely cares for Miyo’s well-being, it shows that despite her reputation at school, Miyo’s never really alone despite feeling this way.
- For Miyo, the dramatic irony is that while she does have people in her corner who genuinely care for her, she isn’t fully aware of this and attempts to forge ahead in her own way. It takes the revelation, that Kinako’s now got Miyo’s body and the process is irreversible, to really show Miyo of what she has to lose should she fully become a cat. Kinako explains that she wants to spend more time with her owner, and that having the lifespan of a human will allow this to become a reality.
- However, par the course for films intending to provide a lesson about appreciating what one’s got, there is one way out of this situation. Kinako instructs Miyo to follow a red line, which will lead to a destination that may prove useful. In following this line, Miyo finds herself at a misshapen torii overlooking the city. She cautiously moves towards it, discovering a secret flight of steps leading towards what is one of the most visually impressive segments of A Whisker Away.
- A Whisker Away thus steps fully into the realm of the fantastical with its introduction of the Cat Island, a gargantuan tree in the sky only accessible to cats. While viewers can’t be sure of what Miyo will encounter when she reaches the island, the use of warm lighting under a marvelous sunset suggests that the location isn’t really hostile or threatening. From the key visuals I’d seen of the series, I had been expecting there to be a more substantial summer festival piece to the film: one was shown at A Whisker Away‘s beginning, but other than that, yukata and the elements that define a summer festival are largely absent from the film.
- Deciding that Miyo’s need outweighs hers, Kinako sets off to find Kento with the hope of having him help convince Miyo to return to her old body. In Miyo’s body, Kinako’s cat-like tendencies are apparent: A Whisker Away supposes that the transition between cat and human states is seamless, and some properties unique to each form carry over. This is similar to Your Name, where Mitsuha and Taki’s body-switching is a straightforwards process. In reality, body-swapping would be a remarkably tricky process owing to the fact that the mind and its memories are tied to the connections in the brain’s neurons. Because all individuals’ brains are wired differently, I imagine that changing bodies would result in the consciousness using the memories of the new body, and memories from the old body simply wouldn’t be accessible.
- To this end, films that use such a mechanism usually suppose that there is some supernatural aspect behind it that bypasses the limitations imposed by reality to accommodate the story. Since Kinako was formerly a cat, she still retains some of her senses, enough to locate the torii and lead Kento to the island in the sky. It’s also the night of the summer festival, and although Kinako had originally intended on attending to enjoy things, learning of Miyo’s fate prompts her to reconsider.
- Without any context, such a moment would seem ridiculous, and I’m certain that the animators had quite a bit of fun with this scene: it’s not every day one can have characters walking through the air without any visible means of support. The grey, overcast skies created a muted palette that pushes emphasis away from the scenery and onto the characters; with the landscapes and typically-beautiful sights around Tokoname given reduced emphasis, A Whisker Away signals to viewers that Kinako and Kento are about to enter a world that is far more colourful and fantastical than our own.
- As Kento and Kinako approach the Cat Island, here is another angle, as well as the wooden bridge leading into its core. From a distance, the composition of this mysterious locale can be seen: city lights dominate the lower half, while the upper half is a massive tree. For me, this is the day of year to do two posts, and if memory serves, last year, I wrote about Valkyria Chronicles 4‘s beach mission, as well as Ano Natsu de Matteru. It suddenly strikes me that I still have yet to beat the Squad 7 addition to Valkyria Chronicles 4.
- The scale and design of the Cat Island brings to mind the aesthetics of the massive bathhouse in Spirited Away: Miyazaki’s films are known for their intricate and detailed environments, as well as large constructs of a bewildering size. Few films have come close to matching the works of Studio Ghibli in creating such fantastical environments. A Whisker Away is able to create a very similar sense in its aesthetics: the verticality in the Cat Island is apparent, and there is an important reason for why Cat Island is as massive as it is.
- Despite its vast size and labyrinthine layout, the use of yellow lighting creates a warm glow that illuminate the wooden walkways and street stalls. Red lanterns are used to create visual breaks, separating the different floors of the Cat Island. Owing to the welcoming lighting and the fact that the cats of the Cat Island have no qualms about Kinako and Kento wandering about their streets, this foreshadows at the origin of all the cats: that they were formerly human. Assuming this to be true, the scale of Cat Island then indicates that there were many who have tread the same path as Miyo did.
- Miyo’s found her way to a small bar whose patrons immediately sympathise with her situation and explain that they were also once human, but made the decision to permanently become cats because of a desire to escape from their responsibilities. While they’ve accepted the consequences of their choices, they implore Miyo to take charge of the situation and set things right before her transformation is permanent. When the Merchant arrives, the patrons attack him, buying Miyo time to escape.
- Miyo thus sets off to spring Kinako and Kento, who were trapped by the Merchant: here, it becomes clear that the Merchant’s goal is giving away noh masks with the aim of eventually permanently transforming the purchasers into cats, after which he may extract their lifespan for himself. While the Merchant can be seen as an antagonist in A Whisker Away, the Merchant is dependent on people being dissatisfied with their lives to the extent of wanting to escape their troubles. As such, I would argue that A Whisker Away is driven by character-versus-self conflict, and the Merchant then becomes an agent that enables a disruption to the status quo that allows Miyo to learn her lesson.
- Kento’s efforts to save Miyo are met with resistance: the Merchant manhandles him as easily as Thanos does against Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-man and the Guardians of the Galaxy combined during the events of The Avengers: Infinity War. Kento’s spirit is that of Iron Man’s: despite being outmatched, Kento refuses to give up, and he does his utmost to keep the Merchant from completing the ceremony that will allow him to take up Miyo’s life force.
- Moved by Miyo’s sitation, the other cats decide to crash the party and help out. Unlike Thanos, the Merchant does not possess the physiology of a Titan or any of the Infinity Gems: with their help in keeping the Merchant restrained, Kento recovers the orb housing Miyo’s life force and returns it to her: with her human mask, she is able to make the transformation back to her old self.
- With this, A Whisker Away draws to a resolution as Miyo’s experiences show her that as Miyo, and not Taro, her world is one worth living in. Because A Whisker Away has a coherent message, I found that the film to be quite enjoyable. Contrary to remarks that the film was strictly average, or sufficiently boring that one should only watch the first fifteen minutes and final five minutes, A Whisker Away is a solid experience on the whole that delivers precisely what it set out to do.
- I’m not sure why some viewers have a persistent, deep-seated hatred for anything that Mari Okada writes: this attitude has endured in some parts of the community since the True Tears era. While I agree that True Tears is an inconsistent story that meandered quite a bit more than was necessary, her contributions to series like Toradora!, Hanasaku Iroha, and AnoHana demonstrate that she’s competent, capable of creating moving experiences. Okada’s career, in short, is one characterised by more excellent works than failures, and consequently, I reiterate that I. would find it instructive to hear the reasoning behind such perspectives.
- At A Whisker Away‘s denouement, I remark that the page quote was chosen because Miyo’s use of her noh mask to visit Kento was initially born out of a desire to spend time with him without revealing her true self and causing hurt to herself. This is the opposite of the rationale that Bruce Wayne provides to Blake in Dark Knight Rises, where he explains to the latter that keeping his identity hidden was to keep those around him from coming to harm, representing a selfless way of thinking about things. In using the noh to keep herself from experiencing difficulties, however, Miyo precipitated the events of A Whisker Away, that would help her to appreciate herself and those around her more.
- Overall, A Whisker Away proved enjoyable for me, earning an A- (3.7 of 4.0, or a 8.5 of 10): with a cohesive story, fantastic visuals and a decisive ending, A Whisker Away captured and held my interest during its runtime. Like Hello World, I have no qualms recommending this movie to folks looking for a romance-adventure with fantasy elements thrown in. With this, another anime movie talk comes to a close, and this post means that for the first time in two years, I have no active drafts. I’ll be stopping by to write about Hakubo! next long weekend, but in the meantime, August is just getting started. I think my next post will deal with the Strike Witches: 501st Joint Fighter Wing Take Off! movie, which came out last year – it’s high time I write about that, since no one else has done so.
A Whisker Away joins the ranks of anime films with a fantastical twist to it, and initially, and comes across as a bit of a busy movie since there are quite a number of moving parts. However, at its core, A Whisker Away is very forwards with its message. The movie’s pacing and progression captures the tumultuous nature of relationships – particularly in youth, whose decision-making process are driven by pure emotion, relationships are fickle machines that are desperately tricky to understand. Similarly, the problems people face in their lives can often appear overwhelming, to the point where one might wish to be a cat, rabbit or other small animal with a much simpler life. However, to be human is to have the resolve, and courage, to take on problems and solve them. Running away from one’s problems, as the cats in the pub demonstrate, results in a different sets of problems being created. With a simple, but meaningful message that is well-presented through the characters and symbols, In conjunction with the high visual quality, most evident in the island in the sky, whose lanterns and branching infrastructure create a mystical setting, I found A Whisker Away to be a superbly enjoyable film to watch. Besides being a solid film, A Whisker Away could also represent an interesting precedent for anime films in general: while a theatrical release creates the most immersive experience, trends in cinema attendance, exacerbated by the current pandemic, has meant that for studios, it might be more viable from a financial standpoint, to bypass theatres outright and sign licensing agreements with streaming services. While it is projected that cinema attendance will swiftly rebound once the pandemic is contained, market forces suggest that until things are resolved, more films will be released digitally for the foreseeable future, and that means, in the short term, anime films might just see a markedly shorter gap between the theatrical première in Japan and when overseas viewers have a chance to watch them.