Logged into Netflix to watch A Whisker Away, Studio Colorido’s charming followup to the equally enchanting Penguin Highway.
The plot revolves around Miyo Sasaki, a young schoolgirl that, contrary to her cheerful demeanor, feels totally alone, unloved, and invisible. Abandoned by her mother and caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle, she privately wishes that the world would just vanish and put an end to her suffering… until a mischievous spirit sells her a mask that magically transforms her into an adorable kitten. Her feline disguise allows her to get closer to Kento Hinode, the object of her unrequited crush. Although she initially revels in his displays of affection, she quickly realizes that they are no substitute for an actual relationship. Unfortunately, complications soon arise, forcing our protagonist to race against the clock in order to reclaim her humanity before she loses it permanently.
I absolutely adore this particular subgenre of Japanese fantasy—supernaturally-flavored love stories that utilize a whimsical fairytale structure to explore deeper universal truths. The central “mask” metaphor is a bit unsubtle, but is nevertheless quite effective. Even before her literal metamorphosis, Miyo hides behind a smile and an extroverted attitude, fearing that showing any sign of vulnerability would make her an easy target for bullies. Hinode, meanwhile, is rather insecure and unassertive beneath his cool and confident exterior. The conflict is propelled by these characters’ refusal to be emotionally honest with one another—and it remains consistently compelling and engaging.
If the movie has one glaring weakness, it lies in its familiarity: Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda have been traversing this same thematic ground for decades, and A Whisker Away never strays very far from the established tropes and archetypes. Still, it manages to excel within that framework. Humorously ineffectual villains, for instance, are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to find an example that is both genuinely funny and legitimately threatening; the corpulent, soul-stealing Mask Salesman, however, pulls off the perilous balancing act with plenty of panache.
I wouldn’t call A Whisker Away an instant classic (it certainly doesn’t rank among such animated masterpieces as Spirited Away, Voices of a Distant Star, and Wolf Children), but it is undeniably cute, cuddly, and heartwarming—and sometimes, that’s all you really need.