There are a couple of Okada Mari projects out there at the moment, and with the transition between one half-season and another half-season of anime, this seems like as good a time as any to tackle them. I’ll cover Sora no Aosa wo Shiru Hito yo (Her Blue Sky) – the third of her collaborations with Nagai Tatsuyuki – eventually. First up is Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu, which has been saddled with the unfortunate English title of A Whisker Away (which sort of fits it, as it turns out).
Given the havoc the pandemic has wreaked with anything theatrical, the decision was made to release this film straight to Netflix, which I think is probably a pretty good choice. It was languishing despite being a finished product, and at least this way fans get to see it. It’s another collaboration with a well-known director, this time Satou Junichi. They’ve worked together before with unfortunate results, and to be honest I find almost everything Satou has written in the past two decades to be insufferably saccharine. But as a director he has real talent – I just prefer him when he’s directing someone else’s work (as with Ikoku Meiro no Croisee and Princess Tutu).
Is Okada the right pairing, though? On paper this partnership strikes me as inviting disaster (M3 would seem to bear this out), and I’m not sure Satou complements Okada as well as Nagai does. But in practice Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu (Okada must aspire to be a light novelist with this crazy-long titles) is a pretty solid effort. It plays as something of a midpoint of Satou’s unapologetic sappiness and Okada’s self-aware ecchi and cleverness. She can be sappy too and if she’d been in that mode, partnering with Satou would probably have been a perfect storm of awfulness. But happily she’s mostly in her more-comfortable cheeky voice with this one.
Basically, we have an annoying middle-school genki girl named Sasaki Miyo (everyone calls her “Moge”, which means grope) who decides to turn into a cat in order to win the heart of her crush. He’s Hinode Kento, and quite resistant to Miyo’s relentless and quite presumptuous advances (which pretty much cross the line into sexual harassment if we’re honest). She does this with the help of the Mask Seller, a mysterious feline youkai who appears after a festival and sells her, well – a mask, obviously. Except he doesn’t take any money for it, so one might be inclined to wonder what he gets out of the deal (as Moge eventually does).
Each of these kids has family issues. Moge’s parents are divorced and while her father and stepmother are perfectly nice, she feels like a third wheel in their home. Her mother abandoned her and frankly comes off as an awful person, trying to sabotage her relationship with her father and his new wife. As for Hinode, his father has passed away and he bonds with his grandpa, longing to follow in his footsteps as a potter. But his mother expects him to follow the path of dedicated student and becomes a salaryman to take care of the family financially (which suits his older sister, who’s a slacker in love with Grandpa’s assistant).
To be blunt, these family problems come off as pretty mass-produced. And the romance angle between the two kids doesn’t have a lot of emotional traction to it – that too is pretty by-the-numbers. Shida Mirai is fine if unexceptional as Moge, and Hanae Natsuki is Hanae Natsuki as Kento. Since he never changes his delivery no matter the role, it’s tough to escape the feeling of listening to Hanae Natsuki and accept the illusion that it’s the character itself you’re listening to. The real energy here comes from Yamadera Kouichi as the Mask Seller and Miki Shin’ichirou as a former human who’s been a victim of his in the past. Two great seiyuu doing great things with relatively small roles.
Still, it’s all entertaining enough. Studio Colorido is a rising star in the anime world – their Penguin Highway is probably the best anime film of the past few years – and as always their work is visually impressive. They’re positioned to be an inheritor of part of the Ghibli legacy I think, since their work seems to capture some of that feel, but is still distinctly their own. Cat Island is a wonderful creation and their depiction of Tokoname, the small city in Aichi famous for its pottery, is absolutely lovely. Colorido is an animator-first company, who express a creative and labor model far more progressive than most in the industry, and I root hard for anything they put their name to.
If A Whisker Away feels a bit like a wasted opportunity – pottery, cats, Colorido – with Okada and Satou behind it there’s just as much sense of a bullet dodged. This is a likeable if unexceptional puppy love fantasy, no more and no less, but it looks great and doesn’t have any major missteps. Everyone involved is certainly capable of better and more substantial work, but there’s nothing wrong with that – movies are designed to be entertainment after all, and this one succeeds in being that to a satisfying degree.