A Whisker Away – Netflix

Written by Mari Okada

Directed by Jun’ichi Satô & Tomotaka Shibayama

 Japan / 2020 / 104 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

leeping all day, prowling all night – the life of a cat seems a pretty sweet gig, right? No responsibilities, no commitments and all the glasses you can knock off the table. For Miyo Saski, being a cat means more, though: it’s the only way she can feel loved. Or at least, loved by someone specific. A schoolgirl, Miyo is smitten with classmate Hinode, and her over-zealous attempts to woo have failed. One night, a mysterious Mask Seller offers Miyo a Noh mask, with whiskers and pointed ears. By day, Miyo is a young girl who ‘masks’ her emotions and pain, by night she takes the form of Taro – a white cat, and goes on adventures.

Captivating as it is peculiar, there’s a mesmeric drive behind committing to Mari Okada’s film which will (assuredly) pay-off. Living up to western stereotypes of the genre, A Whisker Away plays into the hegemonic ideas of what anime ‘subscribes’ itself as – exaggerated, perplexing, and occasionally awkward to a western mindset. Yet, it has a droll charm, with a fascinating wit behind the storytelling and fantastical characterisations set against whimsical animation. 

Undoubtedly paying homage to the Cat Returns series from Studio Ghibli, A Whisker Away reinforces itself with European and American fantasy, notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaidand passing references to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Animation studios Toho, Colorido and Twin Engine design A Whisker Away with a soft palette of primarily pastel shades, solely utilising the intensity of colour for Taro’s eyes. Much of the backdrop fades into a watercolour, with a focus on characters, and occasionally allowing the scenery moment to shine.

Only when we enter the Island of Cats and find ourselves at the mercy of the omniscient Mask Seller does the tone shift to an intense blaze of lights, deep forests, and emeralds. Illustrated in a way to maximise how different this is to the human world, the Island reflects fantastical versions of bars, fountains, and parks, but with enough removal from reality to suggest an uneasy feeling.

A poignant symbol of folklore in Japanese culture, the antagonistic Mask Seller lurks not as a villain, but as a playful spirit akin to the Norse Loki or Shakespeare’s Puck. Sinisterly frolicsome, Kōichi Yamadera’s voice performance and Okada’s writing hint at a deeper, more enigmatic structure than a simple bizarre tale of cats and school children. Offering Miyo the opportunity to shed her human face and live the life of a cat, the Mask Seller allows the audience to reflect reality through the eyes of a troubled adolescent, whose home life and experiences belay a hidden truth she refrains from confronting.

Gradually, the narrative lets these truths unravel in a deceptively authentic manner, as revelations and troubles are suggested, hinted and then reinforced or discussed after a breaking point, rather than spouted as exposition. Mirai Shida captures boundless energy as Miyo, but when called upon switches her into a distressingly subdued shell of sentiment. Even her characterisation of Taro alters enough of the pace and pitch to compliment the feline aesthetics.

If you could buy into The Little Mermaid trading her soul for legs, then you can get behind a young girl trading her legs for a tail. A Whisker Away is as bemusing, absurd and enchanting as one would expect. Yet, it shocks in how surprisingly astute its portrayal of childhood emotions is, from undervaluing a parent’s struggles at keeping a steady home and grappling with divorce to the dangers of concealing emotions. Tapping into an intense, if bewildering imagination, A Whisker Away spins out a contemporary fairytale, with firm roots in Japanese lore and feline escapades. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/a-whisker-away/

A Whisker Away is available to stream on Netflix

The Snow Queen – Festival Theatre

Based on the Hans Christian Andersen

Choreography by Christopher Hampson

Design by Lez Brotherston

Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Reworking the timeless tale by Hans Christian Anderson, no doubt borrowing from Walt Disney’s adaptation of the story, Scottish Ballet continues into the closure of its 50th anniversary with The Snow Queen. In this version, the deviating story merges aspects of the seven shorter parables into one another, with the Summer Princess taking on aspects of the little robber girl, and Gerda and Kai growing in age and becoming lovers, rather than friends/siblings.

Thawing, there isn’t quite the bitter pang of emotion which ought to be present. Compiling a trio of narratives, that of a travelling circus, a fortune teller and The Snow Queen’s narrative itself, the dance seems to fall into a secondary stance in pursuit of a story which is never fully realised. Rather than telling the story of an all-powerful Queen, with an enchanted mirror which shatters, casting a tiny fragment into a young boy’s eye and freezing his heart, becomes an irregular mingle of relationships, which attempts to focus on too many connections, straining each one.

Absent from the original, the Summer Princess, who goes by Lexi is a noted inclusion, and at first, the sisterly relationship of the production offers inspiration, but the character feels flat. Nothing at fault of Grace Paulley, who conveys a lightness which captures her role well, rather Lexi’s motivation, when given a glimpse of a potential future with Kai, seems hollow. At first, we seem unsure of who to support, Gerda the lover of Kai, who seems frosty, or Lexi, a Princess who seeks a life outside of her sister’s cold embrace, when really, it should be Lexi and her sister’s relationship we focus on.

Ferocious, Constance Devernay has a conviction as the Snow Queen, transitioning from rationale, cold and methodical in movement, to a more flirtatious, open posture with icicle-like precision in where her footwork. Devernay is a marvel when given the opportunity, but again, The Snow Queen herself has fleeting moments where the character feels out of place in her narrative. She is neither victim nor villain, hinderance or redeemer. Yet, her place at Anderson’s subversive narrative of sexual repression and risqué judgements, Devernay’s ‘awakening’ of Kai all hints as a profounder ballet. In the final moments however, clumsily grasping at her sister’s embrace/assault (we’re not sure which), The Snow Queen ends, not with glacial purity, but with a thawing frost.

Framing The Snow Queen with a jagged effect, it’s a creative concept which fails in one significant regard. As the Snow Queen and Summer Princess quarrel and peek into the human world, this splintering at the base of the stage obstructs their feet. Perhaps a personal qualm, an inability to see our principal’s footwork is an obscure choice in staging. Otherwise, Lez Brotherston’s design work for the production is sumptuous, conveying a frozen sense of time and framing the productions most exquisite scenes.

Picturesque, this band of performers, many who have previously played circus workers in the first act, get a firmer root in the gypsy clan. Scottish Ballet melds a contemporary feel, with hints of eastern European folk, combining crowd numbers and earthier movements than one would associate with Ballet. Fortune Teller Roseanna Leney has a firmer command with her brief time of stage than sadly some of our principal dancers can manifest. Her character’s richness, strutting Infront of the naked branches of winter, with the regal purple sky hanging above – it’s an entirely perfect scene which echoes what could have been a flawless production.

Between the blossoming romances, the sibling squabbles and the spectacle of the circus, Scottish Ballet attempt a blizzard of emotions, but sadly the forecast ends with a flurry of confusion. Motivations cloud character interactions, and we’re never fully understanding of any. Offering brief snippets of genius, hidden in the flurry of snowflakes, Paulley’s ‘thief girl’ is mingled effortlessly into the choreography as she pirouettes around her victims. Hampson compliments the lightness of a thief, with the pointe of a dancer.

With staggering costumes, particularly make-up effects conjuring Frost Sprites, Wolves and Jack Frost’s into being, The Snow Queen does achieve a sense of wonder. In no small part due to Richard Honner’s arrangement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s original score. As always the orchestra stands firmly level with the quality of the troupe, but this time, it outshines the movement on stage as the music, the imagery and colours steal attention away from the dancers.

As a storytelling vehicle, The Snow Queen leaves those with folklore in their blood with confusion. In trying to capture the imaginations of many, the ice is spread thinly across the board. Christopher Hampson’s choreography fails to reach the lofty heights anticipated but does still showcase the immense skill of Scottish Ballet. In seeking to position the stories of three leading ladies, The Snow Queen is unsure of how to balance these women and sadly, all three find themselves on thin ice.

The Snow Queen runs until December 29th, tickets are available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-snow-queen

Photo Credit -Andy Ross