A Whisker Away Anime Movie Discussion

A Whisker Away (Nakitai Watashi wa Neko o Kaburu), the second anime feature film produced by Penguin Highway’s Studio Colorido, was originally meant to open on 5 June in Japan. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was released worldwide on 18 June via Netflix. With this change in distribution, two of our writers watched the film shortly after the release. Here are their thoughts.

Note: The following discussion contains spoilers. Opinions are that of the writers. 

Director: Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama

Script: Mari Okada

Synopsis: An eccentric teenage girl obtains a mask that allows her to transform into a cat, and she uses this power as an opportunity to get closer to her crush. Eventually, she must choose between being a human or becoming a cat forever.

Part 1: Of Genki Girls and Human Issues

Crys, I think that the first half of A Whisker Away has broken my mind. I… I have no words. Just this:

And this:

Okay, calm down sir. I know you were completely bamboozled by the butt slapping, and so was I. Before anyone thinks of lewd stuff, no, it’s just our dear protagonist Muge using her butt to bump her crush’s butt via a “Hinode Sunrise Attack.” 

Still, I remember grumbling to you about how this is not the way to get your crush’s attention or even get closer to him as friends.

There are genki girls, and then there’s Muge:

It doesn’t look bad in screenshot form, but watching Muge carry out her butt-bumping in the film had me thinking, “Just what on Earth am I watching? What are you Muge?!”

Ah, makes sense.

I don’t think Muge was very likeable as a character for the first half; that is, until you delve deeper into her family history (her mom left when she was a child but is now trying to reconnect with her, while her dad has a new girlfriend who’s living with them in the present day) and her past struggle with making friends because of that history. It’s way too easy to judge a person just by their actions alone without really considering why they are that way.

Without that context, it’s very easy to see her as an annoying character, just as all of her classmates and schoolmates thought her to be. When you think of what she has been through and the lack of support around her, you can see why she prefers to turn into a cat with that mask she got from the Mask Seller in the beginning.

I can see why on paper, but it didn’t feel convincing to me when actually watching the film. My mind kept comparing A Whisker Away unfavourably to When Marnie Was There, as I thought the latter did a far better job in conveying that its protagonist, who also has family-related issues, was a troubled and distant teen. Outside of A Whisker Away’s prologue, I never felt through the film’s presentation that Muge was suffocated by her circumstances and surroundings to the extent that she needed to escape. 

Empathizing aside, I couldn’t even bring myself to like her due to her overwhelmingly energetic behaviour: the way she charges towards Hinode to buttslap him, the part where she flails around inhumanly while remembering a nice experience she had with Hinode, or her basically harassing Hinode:

Man, Muge’s best friend, Yoriko, is really impressive for sticking with her:

It also doesn’t help when the film does this during a supposedly dramatic scene of Muge and her dad’s girlfriend, Kaoru:

And that’s not the only dramatic scene ruined by funny expressions:

The confrontation between Muge’s mother and Kaoru starts off seriously, and I was actually watching their interaction with interest. Then the catfight with funny expressions from Muge’s mom and comedic music starts, ruining the whole moment and literally making me walk away out of exasperation. I really don’t understand why these bizarrely-placed comedic elements exist.

Alright, let’s talk about the cat-transformation stuff before I continue griping for eternity.

Yeah. The expressions that time didn’t really fit the sombre mood, so I couldn’t help but just laugh. I honestly wonder about the thought process behind the expressions for this scene.

Muge’s transformation is a manifestation of her running away from her problems instead of confronting them, and, honestly, it’s quite normal to do it at that age. If people had a magical item that could free them from worries for a while, I feel most people would use it. Especially in Muge’s case where she was well-loved by Hinode and his family, as she could connect with him and hear his worries and troubles.

On the downside:

I actually didn’t buy into her mega-attraction to Hinode either, since it’s largely based on what he did for her when she was in cat form rather than what he did for her in human form. He’s even cold towards her human form, although it later turns out that he doesn’t actually dislike her.

For Hinode, I think it’s because she saw another side to him, and she felt her human and cat form were both “her,” which isn’t wrong. Because she saw this other side of him, she liked him because he was generally caring and kind, and he smiled. I think that makes anyone melt even if he looks aloof on the outside. Smiles are sometimes the greatest things in the world, you know.

Also, I noticed how she treated everyone around her, except for Hinode and Yoriko, as scarecrows. Muge basically shut her heart off. Only Hinode and Yoriko could help her because she wasn’t willing to be vulnerable around anyone else.

The film definitely did not make her background clear enough for me to empathize with her situation, but I could understand how lonely she felt. For her to shut the door to her heart, it’s actually quite common in Asian cultures because speaking about problems is just not encouraged. It could be seen as a “weakness” because we fear how society and the people around us might react to our problems. 

Muge’s issue isn’t just that she bottles things up — she’s blind to the sincerity of the kindness shown by Kaoru.

She does learn her lesson at the end at least:

That kimono-wearing cat is Kaoru’s pet, Kinako. Prior to helping Hinode rescue Muge, she decided to steal Muge’s human form and take her place as she’s nearing the end of her life and wants to remain with Kaoru.

There’s a bit of a confrontation between cat-Muge and human-Kinako in the middle of the film, but I was surprised — and a bit disappointed — that Kinako never called Muge out for being indifferent, outside of some feigned friendliness, towards Kaoru. I thought that Kinako — who had experienced Kaoru’s love for years and would know that her owner was a genuinely kind person  —  felt some displeasure towards Muge’s lack of appreciation towards Kaoru, based on the couple of ominous looks she gives Muge as a cat. It would’ve been an interesting additional motive for Kinako too.

I think most kids at Muge’s age don’t really understand nor comprehend the concern showed by adults, since each person’s expression is different. It’s probably worsened by how us Asians don’t really express our feelings directly. As a teenager, sometimes I also felt that no one understood me, just like Muge did, despite having a supportive family. Sometimes a little reminder can help to give proper perspective on how much people care for you.

I can somewhat understand how Muge feels towards Kaoru. Sometimes as much as the other party is kind, you doubt if their kindness is really because they care for you, or because of something else. It’s also not easy to open up to someone you feel is a stranger no matter how close your blood relatives are with them.

Another thing is that the age gap between Muge and Kaoru isn’t very big. I think Kaoru is, at most, 15 years older than Muge. That already doesn’t quite place Kaoru as a stepmother because she’s awkwardly between the  “older sister” and “motherly figure” role. This lack of firm “placing” makes interaction awkward, because I also have such a situation at home.

Still, I feel bad for Kaoru honestly. I’m glad this film didn’t show stepmothers being evil because she really isn’t. Heck, she’s one of the kindest characters in the show.

You’ve got some good points there, but to rehash what I said earlier, it didn’t seem convincing to me when watching the film. Stars Align, for instance, was excellent at crafting uneasy or even oppressive atmospheres within its characters’ homes. But I never felt that kind of awkwardness – or not enough of it, at least – in A Whisker Away, even when Muge was obviously forcing herself to be cordial with Kaoru. I think part of that reason was because Kaoru comes across as such a gentle person that even when she’s inadvertently annoying Muge, it doesn’t feel like she’s butting into Muge’s personal space. 

I’ve been going on and on about how I couldn’t empathize with Muge, so let me shake things up by adding that I couldn’t empathize with Hinode either, despite the fact that I could relate to his issue a little bit. 

Kaoru’s definitely a lot more considerate than Muge, but she’s older than Muge anyway. 

Hinode’s story wasn’t fleshed out that much. It’s a pretty basic storyline and other than showing he has his own problems too, it doesn’t do much else. I feel that’s what attracted me to the film wasn’t their backstories nor the reasonings, but more of everyone’s interactions with each other. I’m just a really basic person where I enjoy the main couple’s interactions — who are hopefully also enjoying each other’s company — without thinking too much. I’m not entirely sure what made me like Muge and Hinode so much either, but it certainly feels like a phase of teenagehood and puppy love. However, that turned out well and made me quite happy for them.

Head to the next page for Part 2 of this discussion.

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