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Featured Blu-ray Review: Studio Ghibli Double-Feature: The Cat Returns and Spirited Away

June 16th, 2015

Studio Ghibli Double-Feature:
The Cat Returns - Buy from Amazon: Blu-ray Combo Pack
Spirited Away - Buy from Amazon: Blu-ray Combo Pack

The Cat Returns

This week we have two Studio Ghibli films making their Blu-ray debuts. The first, Spirited Away, is one of their best-known movies. The other, The Cat Returns, is not. Fans of the studio will obviously want to pick up both of these Blu-rays, but will they have appeal beyond the hardcore fans?

The Cat Returns

This movie is a "spiritual successor" to Whisper of the Heart. In that movie, a 14-year old girl writes a story and this movie is about the characters she created.

This film focuses on Haru, a young girl whom we meet at the beginning of the movie as she's rushing off to school. She gets there late and the class laugh at her when she's busted by the teacher. After school, while walking home with her friend, Hiromi, the pair see a cat walking down the sidewalk carrying a small package. The is unusual enough for them to take notice. When the cat tries to cross the street, it is about to be hit by a truck, but Haru races to save it. While Haru is recovering, she sees the cat standing on its hind legs like a human would. The cat thanks her for saving its life and promises to return so he can properly show his gratitude. Needless to say, she's stunned. When Hiromi catches up, Haru says the cat talked to her, but Hiromi reacts like anyone would. She assumes Haru bumped her head.

When Haru talks to her mother, she asks her if she thinks cats can talk. Instead of assuming Haru was injured, she tells her that Haru that when Haru was younger, she said she could talk to cats. Haru just wants to put the whole affair behind her, but that night, something really bizarre happens. She sees a parade of cats traveling in the alleyway. She goes outside and is greeted by none other than the King of Cats (Tim Curry). It turns out the cat she saved was his son, Prince Lune. As a thank you, the King of Cats has arranged for Haru to receive a "marvelous array of gifts", or to be more accurate, an array of gifts that a cat would consider marvelous. Some of these gifts make sense. She used her lacrosse stick to save Prince Lune, but it was broken in the process, so the cats give her numerous replacements. On the other hand, stuffing her pockets with catnip, making her yard overflow with cattail plants isn't helping, or stuffing her locker with live rats. At the end of the school day, she talks to one of cats who has been organizing the gifts, Natoru. He is shocked that they could have messed up this badly, but offers Haru a tour of the cat kingdom...

Haru accidentally agrees to marry Prince Lune and while freaking out about this, she hears a voice telling her to find the Cat Bureau. She will be guided by a white cat, Muta, who takes her to Baron Humbert von Gikkingen and Toto, both of whom were art creations that were given souls. The Baron agrees to help Haru, but before he can, Natoru arrives and kidnaps Haru and takes her to the Kingdom of Cats. What she finds there would take us too deep into spoiler territory.

The first thing to note about The Cat Returns is its running time. It is only 75 minutes long, and that includes the credits. This is not terribly short for an animated film, but it is one of the clues that it is aimed at a younger audience than most Studio Ghibli films. It feels like a light-fantasy story aimed at younger girls, as opposed to many of their films, which are aimed at adult fans of the art form. There's obviously nothing wrong with making films aimed at this demographic, but target demographic is important when it comes to reviews. There are not as high stakes and there's not as much tension as there is with Spirited Away, for example. It's more about exploring a new and strange world and it is an expertly executed story in that genre. The world is fantastic, in the literal sense, and the characters are charming and engaging, especially the King of Cats. The film is worth checking out and has high replay value.

The Extras

Extras begin with the entire film in the original Japanese storyboards. The first featurette is Behind the Microphone, which is a nine-minute featurette on the voice actors for the English version of the film. Up next, is a 34-minute long making-of featurette, which is in Japanese with English subtitles. There are also trailers for the Japanese and English versions of the film.

The technical presentation is excellent, for this type of animation. It's much more a "watercolor background" than a "high level of details" type of animation. So while the details are not the best I've seen, the colors really shine and that is much more important. Plus, I didn't spot any digital artifacts or compression issues. The audio is not as immersive as I would have expected, but the dialogue is clear and there's no issues. It's just much of the time it is front-loaded.

As for the price, it is only $22. I was expecting the Blu-ray to cost closer to $30, so this is a nice surprise.

Spirited Away

The film begins with Chihiro Ogino riding in the back of her parents car and they drive to a new town. She's only ten years old, so leaving behind her old friends is not something she is happy about. On the way there, her father, Akio gets lost and eventually they wind up at a strange temple. Her father notices it looks new and cheaply made, so he wants to explore it. Despite objections from Chihiro's mother, Yūko, they check it out. After looking around a little bit, Akio thinks the place in an abandoned theme park. However, he smells some delicious food, so it can't be completely abandoned.

Akio and Yūko search to find the restaurant where the smell is coming from, while Chihiro becomes more distressed about being there. It gets worse when her parents find the food. They immediately sit down and start eating like pigs. Chihiro starts yelling at them to leave, but when they won't listen, she decides to go on without them. The only other building she finds that doesn't appear to be abandoned is a bath house. While standing on the bridge to bathhouse, she sees a young boy, Haku, who yells that she shouldn't be there. He tells her to run away. She needs to cross the river before it gets dark, or she will be stuck there.

Chihiro races back to her parents only to find... spoilers. We're less than 15 minutes into the movie and we've already reached spoiler territory. Although, let's be frank. The movie is called Spirited Away, so it is not really a spoiler to say it deals with the spirit world. However, the details are spoilers, so I'd stick to the safe side here.

Spirited Away is a much darker fantasy film than The Cat Returns. ... Wow. That's an understatement. The film is about, and one last warning, you might not want to know what it is about, it is about child prostitution. Chihiro's parents got greedy at the restaurant, which is an analogy for parents getting into debt and having to sell their daughters into the sex industry. The bathhouse is a more obvious symbol, as bathhouses have long been associated with brothels in Japan. Chihiro is forced to get a job at the bathhouse and her boss is called Yubaba, the name given to madams in the Edo period of Japanese history. Addition, her new boss makes her take on a new name, Sen, which is also common among prostitutes of that era. Haku warns her that if she forgets her real name, she will be stuck there forever; if she forgets her humanity, she will be lost forever. And don't think this is some crazy fan theory and is nothing more than that reading too much into the film. Hayao Miyazaki himself has confirmed this theory and said it was intentional. For some, this added layer of meaning will improve a film that is already rightfully considered a masterpiece. For others, this will make the fantasy a little too dark, which is why I whited out the theory. If you haven't heard it, but you are in the second camp, I don't want to "ruin" the movie for you.

Regardless of what you think about the underlying message, Spirited Away is arguably Miyazaki's best film. It looks stunning and the spirit world hits the right notes to be alien, but not off-putting, for the most part. The lead character is engaging and while young, isn't precocious in an off-putting way. There's plenty of adventure and peril, leading to many tense scenes. Absolutely marvelous and a must see for kids and adult fans of animation.

The Extras

The extras are very similar to the previous Blu-ray with Japanese storyboards, Behind the Microphone, making-of featurette, trailers, etc. There is also a introduction by John Lasseter and a 15-minute featurette called The Art of Spirited Away.

The technical presentation is better here, as the art style is more detailed and those details are richly preserved by the video. The colors are just as strong as with the previous film and the blacks are inky black. It goes without saying that there are no digital artifacts or compression issues. The audio is just as good with dialogue that is always clear, while the surround sound speakers get a healthy workout. There are ambient sounds and the score is engulfing in just the right way.

The Blu-ray also costs $22, which is again much cheaper than expected.

The Verdict

Both The Cat Returns (Blu-ray Combo Pack) and Spirited Away (Blu-ray Combo Pack) are must haves. If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli, there is no reason not to have these two films in your collection. Even if you've never seen a Studio Ghibli film in your life, these are worth picking up, as you get a nice light-fantasy film as well as a more dark adventure film.

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Filed under: Video Review, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, Neko no ongaeshi, Tim Curry, Kristen Bell, Peter Boyle, Daveigh Chase, Michael Chiklis, Cary Elwes, Elliott Gould, Anne Hathaway, Lauren Holly, John Lasseter, Jason Marsden, Hayao Miyazaki, Andy Richter, Kristine Sutherland, Andrew Bevis