Quickie: A Whisker Away (2020) and the Angst of Loneliness
Updated: Jul 10
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead! If you haven't watched the film I suggest going through the plot summary before reading this post.
Jun'ichi Satô's debut feature A Whisker Away (2020) is a heartfelt tale about a tweenager grappling with loneliness and her attempts to find love. The Japanese name Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu literally translates to "Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat". The film introduces us to two distinct personalities of Miyo- Muge (Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic), the persona she puts on for the outside world and Taro, the cat she turns into to get close to her crush, Hinode. Miyo has yet another personality which comes out only in times of extreme discomfort or pain, which the film suggests to be the "real" Miyo. Both Muge and Taro are Miyo's escape from a world she doesn't feel welcome in. To Miyo everybody other than Hinode and Yoriko (her best friend) is a scarecrow, implying that in addition to being non-entities they are trying to scare her away just by being there. While Muge steers into borderline mania to keep away feelings of rejection Taro is an entire self-transformation through which she gets a taste of the love she longs for. The two personalities nourish each other as Miyo gets trapped in the vicious cycle of self-rejection.
Being abandoned by her mother as a kid and having to live with her father and his fiancée Miyo nurtures chronic feelings of being unloved. Her comment "I guess you have to raise them from a young age to get them to like you" is not limited to cats. The feeling reaches its zenith at the festival following an altercation with her mother regarding her living arrangements. Miyo runs off muttering to herself the words "I hate this stupid world. I hope this world ends soon." Immediately after that Miyo gets herself a cat mask from a mysterious pipe smoking tabby cat thus setting the film in motion. She transforms into a cat and spends the night snuggled in Hinode's arms whose words "The world is filled with things I hate and things I don't need" resonate with Miyo. Unlike Miyo though, Hinode still wishes to be a part of this world. This is how Miyo wishes to be- to exist in this world and be loved even though there may be nothing good in it. Watching Hinode accomplish so easily what she has tried to do her entire life infatuates Miyo with him forever. Add to that a gentle caring nature and Miyo just can't have enough of him.
While Muge fails to arise Hinode's interest Taro achieves it effortlessly. Miyo is not at all interested in all the possibilities that being a cat offers and seems focused only on Hinode. Taro stands as a visual representation of how people readily transform their entire selves and adopt different personalities to attain love and attention- "If I was Taro, would he love me?". Miyo doesn't even notice her gradual conversion into Taro as she starts jumping off roofs onto trees, an action that allows her to spend time with Hinode even as Muge. The film does an excellent job of exploring how Miyo's troubles with her family directly pushes her towards Hinode. Any untoward situation with her family is followed by thoughts of Hinode. At one point she actually says "I'm gonna marry Hinode and move out of here as soon as I can." When her exuberant admission of her feelings goes wrong and Hinode tells her he hates her she goes from feeling unloved to feeling unlovable. Feeling unlovable is what drives people to their extremes- in Miyo's case it is to give up her human side. The rest of the film concerns itself with how Miyo finds out that she is indeed loved. The problem lies with the film's dependence on the paranormal to achieve this. In the real world Miyo's transformation would not result in her physical disappearance and no search parties would be taken out for her. Hinode would be quite satisfied with Taro and love her thus pushing her farther away from her "real" self. He would not be out in the rain looking for her and probably wouldn't even know of the real Miyo's existence. Neither would Miyo lose verbal communication with him which serves as her strongest motivation to want to revert back to her human self. In the real world Miyo would be stuck as Taro.
The bigger problem is how Hinode comes to realize his love for Miyo. He doesn't care for or admire anything about Muge (as he knew her) or Miyo (as Yoriko reveals her story). He is simply overwhelmed by how much effort Miyo put into cheering him up and supporting him, both as Muge and as Taro. Even while contemplating how Miyo had kept on her exuberant persona despite her hardships he is more moved by the fact that "She did it for me", aided by some misplaced self-blame on never realizing it before and pushing her away. The fact that Hinode's love is built upon Taro's efforts and Muge's smothering sets dangerous precedents for young viewers. Similar overt displays of affection by Hinode is what convinces Miyo of his love as she watches him literally fight for her. It is exclusively Hinode's love that finally manages to bring her back. Despite the sincerity of Yoriko and Kaoru-san's love, Miyo's acknowledgement of everybody else's love comes only after she is already on her way back. By the way, kudos to Kaoru-san for being the coolest character- a gentle loving stepmom and a bitch-slapping badass. Why does Miyo have such a hard time noticing the love around her and stay obsessed only with Hinode? She probably watched too many films like A Whisker Away. Watch Maleficent (2014) people.
The symbolism works- on wearing a mask only Hinode's hands get transformed (due to insecurities regarding pottery) implying as long as you are sure of yourself no mask can change you. Similarly the human mask failed to revert Miyo back until she wholeheartedly wished to be a human again. Yet the film fails because Miyo's wish to be a human again doesn't arrive from any actual realization or maturity. She got what she wanted (Hinode's love) and hence wanted to live again. Please can we have better films that show kids that it is possible to be confident of oneself without depending on others? Also, by having Miyo reconcile with literally everyone including her mother the film puts the blame on Miyo's lack of understanding instead of the actual issues plaguing countless real life Miyo-s. Shutting your heart out may not be a solution but neither is opening it to everyone. The film additionally propagates the harmful myth of the real self.