Who among us hasn’t dreamed about being a cat — trading work, school and all those pesky social entanglements for carefree naps in the sun? “A Whisker Away” brings that dream, and all its unintended consequences, to animated life.

Making the transformation to feline form is Miyo “Muge” Sasaki (Mirai Shida), a middle school student whose strained relationships with her divorced parents have left her feeling unloved. On the night of a festival (these things always seem to happen at festivals), Miyo discovers a mask that transforms her into an adorable kitten. The shapeshifted Miyo ends up taking shelter from a sudden downpour with a classmate, Hinode (Natsuki Hanae), who, taking her for a normal cat, snuggles up to her and confides his hopes and dreams. This “purrfect” moment leads to Miyo falling head over paws for Hinode, but there’s a problem: his total lack of affection for her when she’s in human form.

“A Whisker Away” comes from the pen of prolific anime screenwriter Mari Okada, who often uses magical realism to tell stories of teenage loneliness, heartbreak and poor communication. Okada has previously used ghosts, time travelers and curses as windows into the teenage heart, but this film’s cat-humans (or is that human-cats?) give her pet themes a new buoyancy that tamps down some of her angstier screenwriting impulses.

A Whisker Away (Nakitai Watashi Wa Neko O Kaburu)
Director Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama
Run Time 104 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Now Streaming On Netflix

There’s still plenty of drama to be had, though. At school, Miyo attracts more bullies than friends; at home, the presence of her future stepmother makes it hard for her to relax. Her only solace comes from sneaking out in cat form to see Hinode, who is oblivious to the fact his furry friend and the awkward girl from school are one and the same. Of course, all this pawing around doesn’t come without a price. Before long, the creator of Miyo’s cat mask (a literal fat cat) comes calling, explaining that she must soon choose between an all-human or all-feline existence. The ultimatum eventually takes both Miyo and Hinode to Cat Island, a sprawling paradise that feels like a cross between downtown Tokyo and a cat tree, where secrets are revealed and feelings are shared.

Co-directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, “A Whisker Away” is ultimately a vehicle for Okada with all the good and bad that entails: well-rounded, complex characters, but a tendency for those characters to explicitly spell out the film’s themes. As the second full-length feature from Studio Colorido, “A Whisker Away” features some nice moments of character work from humans and cats alike, but the film doesn’t reach the fluid splendor of the studio’s debut feature, “Penguin Highway.” More impressive are the set designs, which, from Miyo’s bunk bed to the multi-level Cat Island, feature the kind of vertiginous heights perfect for a film about felines. Speaking of explicitly spelling things out: the soundtrack is more incessant than a hungry cat.

Enjoyable but in no way revolutionary, “A Whisker Away” might have felt slight in theaters, but on Netflix, where it was relocated due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s a pleasant way to while away a few hours. Also, there’s another advantage to streaming: Whenever you need a break, you can always hit “paws.”

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