Review: A Whisker Away

With COVID-19 not letting up anytime soon, studios are skipping theatrical releases and going straight to (streaming) video. While generally more convenient for the audience, this has caused a glut of content, where you must pick and choose what media you absorb before the next week’s harvest comes in and last week’s is forgotten about. While some streaming content has lived on longer than it deserved (I’m talking about Tiger King here, which feels a year ago, even now), others barely got a chance to shine before we moved on. A Whisker Away falls firmly in this camp.

This movie from Studio Colorido originally had a theatrical release planned in June, but was delayed and ultimately sold to Netflix for worldwide streaming. Directed by Junichi Sato (Ojamajo Doremi, Sailor Moon, Pretty Cure), with a script by (yes, that) Mari Okada, A Whisker Away absolutely deserves more than the slight flourish it got, perhaps an unfortunate side-effect of the pandemic. While GKIDS and Eleven Arts have made a name for themselves bringing a variety of movies to the US, the absence of their theatrical events as of late has a left a void in my heart, and A Whisker Away languishes in this void.

Primarily a youthful love story, the movie opens with Muge, a girl in love with her classmate, Hinode, but while other anime tends to just focus on the awkwardness of these feelings, building up to the overwhelming crescendo of The Confession (a trope that Kaguya-sama certainly did not invent but is completely built on), A Whisker Away cuts to the chase in having Muge display her affections for Hinode right from the get-go. But when the usual methods don’t seem to be paying off, Muge enlists the help of a youkai Mask Seller, a cat-like spirit that gives her a mask that allows her to turn into a cat. She uses this guise to get closer to the usually-cold Hinode, but when he starts to open up to cat-Muge instead of human-Muge, she gives up her human form completely, a ploy that allows the Mask Seller to steal half her lifespan. She quickly begins to regret this trade, as she sees her family, her friends, and even Hinode frantically search for her, realizing that trying to hide her feelings does nobody any good.

Ultimately, the movie follows its well-worn plot beats and ends exactly where you think it’s going to. But that’s not why I would recommend A Whisker Away. Underneath the sickly-sweet romance is a staunch criticism of the Japanese social mask, the concept of honne and tatamae. Anyone who has delved into Japanese culture is likely familiar with this idea—one must keep one’s true feelings and opinions (honne) hidden behind the socially appropriate demeanor one shows in everyday life (tatamae). Here, we see it in Muge, who rejects it in how obviously she has fallen for Hinode. He, in turn, uses it a shield to hide is own anxieties, as he is forced to choose between his desire of becoming a potter like his grandfather or the more traditional route of getting in to a good school to get a good job to take care of his family. As the story unfolds, however, we discover more of Muge’s situation—her mother left while she was still young, and her father has recently moved his new partner into their house. As much as she holds her heart on her sleeve in front of Hinode, she represses all of her misgivings about this new home life until they boil to the surface as the final act opens.

In 2020, the audience should expect any script from Okada to hit you hardest when you’re most vunerable; A Whisker Away does not disappoint here. Our main characters do struggle against what society expects of them. Muge cannot cope with her changing family dynamic and reaches out to Hinode for acceptance. He, in turn, pushes her away out of fear that she will discover how much of a failure he believes himself to be. Muge’s mother regrets the distance she created and lashes out at her ex-husband and his partner. Everyone in A Whisker Away is struggling with their true feelings and decisions, and while this drama may not hit as hard as Maquia or AnoHana, I daresay that any child of divorce will not relate strongly to this movie.

Another positive for the movie would be the visuals. The animation might not pop as strongly as Colorido’s previous outing in Penguin Highway, but the surreal movements of the Mask Seller help highlight his mystical nature, and the entire final act feels like a scene from Spirited Away. Muge’s feline animation feels a little more Western in nature than most other anime cats, which helps build her character and add to the innocent love she feels for Hinode. While the overall presentation doesn’t feel as polished as a Ghibli or Shinkai movie, Colorido is once again punching above than their weight-class here.

A Whisker Away may have already passed under your radar, thanks to breakneck speed of the social media cycle, but I would absolutely recommend it. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily on the same level of Okada’s other works, but in true vein, it focuses on the uglier human feelings to create a compelling story. The visuals assist in these themes, although if you’re immune to puppy love, I can see it being a challenge to enjoy this movie. As someone who doesn’t watch too many romance stories, however, I still think it is worth a casual weekend watch.

A Whisker Away is available for streaming on Netflix.

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