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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002

Half right but not half bad

Neko no Ongaeshi

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Running time: 75 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

What does it take to change conventional wisdom? Sometimes even a war isn't enough. And at other times, it only takes one man.

For the Japanese animation business, that man was Hayao Miyazaki. When he started Studio Ghibli in 1985 together with colleague Isao Takahata, feature-length animation in Japan was nearly always the end product of a process that started with a popular manga, continued with a TV show and included toys, games and other spinoffs. With the exception of sci-fi fantasies for teenage otaku, back then films were entertainment for kiddies, to be ground out as cheaply and quickly as possible, in series and according to formula. Miyazaki violated nearly all these industry rules.

Studio Ghibli made only films for theatrical release, aimed for the highest possible quality and rejected the series-and-spinoff approach (save for a few stuffed toys, key chains and other tchotchkes). And the films -- including "Tonari no Totoro," "Majo no Takkyubin," "Mononoke Hime" and "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" -- made tons of yen, while topping the box office year after year.

But though Miyazaki successfully challenged the conventional wisdom, he couldn't topple it. His competitors argued, with justice, that he could get away with his heresies because he was a genius. They would stick with the tried and true. Pokemon forever!

Now past 60 and tiring of the animation grind, Miyazaki and Takahata are turning over the reins to a new generation at Studio Ghibli. One of that generation, Hiroyuki Morita, has directed the latest Ghibli film, "Neko no Ongaeshi (A Cat Returns)" -- and proven that the conventional wisdom is half right.

This is not to say Morita's film is another last link in a multimedia daisy chain. True, the film is based on the work of popular shojo manga (girls' comic) artist Aoi Hiiragi, while resurrecting two characters from the 1985 Ghibli film "Mimi o Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart)" -- the aristocratic cat Baron and the fat cat Muta. But there is no "Neko no Ongaeshi" manga series or TV show, and the film is not a sequel, save in the loosest sense. Like all Ghibli films, it benefits from the studio brand but must otherwise stand or fall on its own.

But rather than break new ground, as befitting a member of Ghibli's New Wave, Morita falls back on studio formulas. Miyazaki's genius was to make the familiar Ghibli story line -- a spunky, young heroine embarks on a life-changing (or life-threatening) adventure in a fantasy world -- look fresh and exciting time after time. For him, as he often said in speeches and essays, the plot was like a Christmas tree -- the real fun was in making and hanging the ornaments, which meant everything from delving into Japan's ancient past to studying the way light moves through the trees. The films were less mass entertainments than animated expressions of Miyazaki's brilliant, unorthodox, restlessly inquisitive mind.

Morita and his team, working under Miyazaki's supervision, have made a few neat ornaments, including a bizarre, funny banquet scene that even gets laughs from defenestration and a breathtaking free-fall sequence that makes the magic carpet in "Aladdin" look as tame as a kiddie ride. But most of the ornaments in this film come straight from the same shojo manga box that has supplied dozens of other animated shows and films for the under-12 set. It's cute and entertaining enough, but it's also generic and plot-driven in a way the best of Miyazaki is not.

The heroine is Haru (Chizu Ikewaki), a klutzy, dreamy girl who is forever coming late to school and otherwise stumbling through her mundane existence. Then one day she rescues a cat from an oncoming truck with her lacrosse stick -- and it stands on its hind legs and thanks her.

That night she is astonished again when a procession of cats passes in front of her house (looking medieval, save for black-suited security guards). The cat king (Tetsuro Tanba) -- old, obese and regally self-satisfied -- thanks her for saving his son and says that, in return, he will do everything in his power to make her happy. The next day she finds a pile of lacrosse sticks in front of her door and boxes filled with mice in her school locker. (Intended as snacks, perhaps?) Then a messenger from the king arrives with an invitation to the cat kingdom. She accepts -- why not? -- and soon discovers, to her consternation, that the cats expect her to marry their prince.

Help arrives from an unusual source: a fat, grouchy cat named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe), who takes her to a mysterious street where the buildings are all cat-size. There, in an exquisitely furnished town house, she meets Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a cat who is every inch the Edwardian gentleman. He offers to escort her to the cat kingdom and get to the bottom of this prince business. She leaves, feeling relieved, but is swept off her feet by a phalanx of cats, who whisk her through the street and into the air -- with Baron, Muta and a trash-talking crow named Toto (Yosuke Saito) close behind. Before she can gather her wits, she is in a lush countryside, with the king's castle glimmering in the distance.

Her adventures borrow bits and pieces from "The Hobbit," "Alice In Wonderland," "Pinocchio" and other classics of fantasy literature, but the focus of the story is Haru's mad scramble, with the help of Baron and company, to escape the cat kingdom and return to good old dull normality. There is much slam-bang action, much slapstick and even a ballroom scene that is a straight rip from "Beauty and the Beast." In other words, Ghibli does Disney. The problem is, Disney does Disney a lot better. The Ghibli strengths -- including carefully layered characterizations and gorgeously detailed atmospherics -- get lost in the frantic shuffle.

Playing together with "Neko no Ongaeshi" is "Ghiblis Episode 2," a series of shorts whose characters are based on real folks working at the Ghibli studio. Though the stories are basic -- a lunch in a ramen shop that becomes a journey into a spicy hell, a middle-aged man's memories of his first love -- the animators have discarded formulas for unfettered experimentation. The results are hilarious, whimsical, touching, mind-blowing. This, I thought, is what the best in Japan can do when they're trying to please themselves -- not 10-year-olds. If the studio is to have a future in the post-Miyazaki era, it has to find it here. The same old ornament box ain't gonna do it.

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