★★★★☆The month of May has seen the cinematic world both celebrating and lamenting as the career of master animator Hayao Miyazaki came to an end with his skyborne swansong, The Wind Rises (2013). As the man referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney retires, attention is very much focused on the future, and past, of the magnificent Studio Ghibli. This week, thanks to StudioCanal, two of the studios previous works - one enormously well known, and the other a little less so - are receiving long-awaited Blu-ray releases. The epic masterpiece, Princess Mononoke (1997) and the charming adventure in a mysterious feline world, The Cat Returns (2002).
The Cat Returns features two characters that appeared in fantasy sequences in the imagination of the protagonist of 1995's Whisper of the Heart, to which this acts as an indirect sequel. Now, The Baron (Cary Elwes in the English dub) and Muta (Peter Boyle) are real, and are drafted in to help a young girl, Haru (Anne Hathaway), who is being forced into marriage with the prince of the magical Cat Kingdom. It makes for thoroughly enjoyable if lightweight viewing, with one-time director Hiroyuki Morita proving a safe pair of hands. As with much of Miyazaki's own output, the film offers a winning heroine and a joyful dip into Japanese folklore, even if it does not stand up against the studios most celebrated works. One such example is the stunning Princess Mononoke, which launched Miyazaki in the West.
The unused title for the film that was preferred by its creator was 'The Legend of Ashitaka', and it is he that the story concerns. After a raging demon comes marauding into his village, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) becomes infected by it, and leaves his village to seek out the source of the malady. On his travels he meets tree spirits, monks, miners and the eponymous princess, San (Claire Danes), who was raised by lupine woodland gods. This wonderful period story is brimming with many of the themes that preoccupied Miyazaki throughout his career; it is both deeply humanistic and an environmental warning. Every frame is a joy to behold, and whether it be a procession of cats winding through rural streets, or a lone tree spirit bobbling his head, the utter magic of the medium is always fully realised by Studio Ghibli's output. Miya-san may have said "sayounara" but the films made during his time will continue to inspire and delight.