Written by #MariOkada
What’s the best way to get the attention of your high-school crush? Chasing after them in public? Falling hopelessly at their feet? Or, transforming into an adorable pet cat, all the while keeping your true identity a secret? That’s the next option for the main character in A Whisker Away, a wonderful Netflix original anime, directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama.
“Ultra Gaga” Miyo (Mirai Sida) is obsessively in love with Hinode (Natsuki Hanae) though his feelings aren’t mutual, largely due to her unapologetically manic behaviour. However, Miyo has been given a magical mask that allows her to turn into a cuddly-cute cat, which she uses to befriend Hinode. As time goes on, Miyo is torn between remaining as a cat forever to stay close to Hinode or revealing who she really is.
Prolific anime writer Mari Okada surprises with the character of Miyo. Avoiding the cliché of the shy girl-next-door, Okada presents an intriguing protagonist in Miyo (brilliantly realised by Sida). Whether its attacking Hinode on the butt or jumping from a school roof to challenge his nay-sayers, we can never guess what she's going to do next. In fact, Okada subverts the familiar Jekyll-and-Hyde style narrative by having the human Miyo fiery and impulsive, whilst her cat persona is more subdued and astute. Naturally, there are underlying causes behind Miyo’s erratic nature - her mother abandoned her at a young age and she has struggled to readjust to life with her father and stepmother. As both human and cat though, Miyo is always appealing and Sida inhabits the role with tremendous passion and range.
As well as the oft-used Faustian device at the centre of the story, Sato and Shibayama’s delightful film has parallels with numerous others, outside of anime. Miyo makes a deal to become a cat to be near Hinode just as Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) becomes a voiceless human to win the love of Eric. Her metamorphosis is made possible by means of an enchanted mask, just like Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask (1994). And, of course, with its story of a confused girl’s romantic desires manifesting in feline form, there’s an inevitable comparison with Jacques Tourneur’s classic Cat People (1942).
Yet, despite the amalgam of stories in its DNA, A Whisker Away always feels fresh, inventive and original, principally through the vivid characterisations and heartfelt drama. Miyo masks her true feelings towards her family and friends by doing just that; wearing a cat's mask. Her real challenge is not to accept herself, or even win Hinode’s love, but to accept the others in her life. “I shut my heart to everyone”, she realises at the end of the story; Hinode’s love is only part of the bigger love that’s out there for her. And, ultimately, she can only fully express her acceptance of that love as a human.
Sweet, cute and charming, A Whisker Away is a great piece of anime escapism; a purr-fect antidote for those lockdown blues.