Traveling Cat Chronicles, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/30/18 15:10:00
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Traveling Cat Chronicles" was the first film to play the festival lineup on this day, and it was a canny bit of scheduling not just because this was a more family-friendly movie than what makes up the bulk of this genre-heavy schedule, but because it's unapologetically sentimental in a way few other movies playing the event are. So, fine, let's get the day's crying done early and have fun with the rest of the movies; it's not like that will be unearned.The film is narrated by a once-proud stray cat (voice of Mitsuki Takahata) who mentions that she as yet has no name, though has been living with Satoru (Sota Fukushi) since he found her on the side of the road. Satoru is a young man, at a point where one's life is often in flux, and there is no space for a cat in this next phase, but he's also a cat lover who wouldn't dream of not making sure Nana does not find a good home. So he travels up and down Japan meeting with childhood friends Kosuke Sawada (Ryosuke Yamamoto), who is recently divorced, and Yoshime (Tomoya Maeno), who has recently adopted a kitten; former classmate Sugi Shusuke (Takuro Ono) and ex-girlfriend Chikako (Alice Hirose), now married and running a pet-friendly B&B; and his aunt Noriko (Yuko Takeuchi), who raised him after his parents' death and whose itinerant work as a judge prevented Satoru from having a pet as a child. None of them, unfortunately, are quite able to take in a cat who has grown attached to her human.
There has, obviously, been a fair amount of tragedy and upheaval in Satoru's life already, and each time Satoru visits a friend there is an accompanying set of flashbacks to how Satoru met them, how they were separated, and some story about how they bonded over a cat. The stories inevitably fall into a bit of a pattern, but director Koichiro Miki makes that a good thing, telling some funny stories that glide into a bittersweet place; they point at where the film is heading while still misdirecting the audience a bit. Where the story is heading is both a surprise and not by the time it gets there, but that doesn't matter; the film is generally about taking both animals and people who need it in, even when it's difficult and leads to some heartache, and never loses sight of that.
Yes, this is the sort of movie that tries to soften a blow with cute animals, but since it's cats instead of dogs (as is more common), it's kind of no-nonsense about it. Nana is smart and not sentimental in her narration (or his; the subtitles use male pronouns despite the female voice, but I suspect that will be fixed if this gets any sort of official release), with Mitsuki Takahata giving her a default tone of annoyed indignation that matches the feline performer without ever seeming aloof (and occasionally being quite emotional). It's just enough tartness on top of a sort of simple, child-like vocabulary to feel like a cat. There are some other animal voices (though mostly confined to the present where Nana can relay them), but Takahata's performance sets the tone.
It's a bit of a necessary contrast to Sota Fukushi's Satoru, who could potentially come across as saintly to the point of excess (the filmmakers are keen enough to set a good example for the kids watching that he always pulls over to the side of the road to answer his phone). Fukushi and Miki don't play his decency as a joke, but as well-earned calm and centeredness, and Fukushi makes the moments when it's likely hard to maintain feel that way. He and the younger actors playing Satoru in flashbacks work well opposite Yuko Takeuchi; writers Emiko Hiramatsu and Hiro Arikawa (who also wrote the original book) tend to give Noriko a less graceful way of getting to the same place, and Takeuchi sells the contrast between how Noriko being smart and principled doesn't mean much of what it takes to be a parent comes easily to her. She's funny in a nervous, sympathetic way.
Miki's craftsmanship is enjoyably understated here; there aren't a lot of scenes that will have an audience wondering how the trainers got something out of Nana, and things like moving between time periods are by and large simple enough that the younger people in the audience can keep up without anyone feeling patronized. His tendency for simple, unexaggerated settings lets a few moments where the environment is especially beautiful or institutional stand out, but also works in more subtle ways, in how various spaces feel more or less "homey" reflect where the characters are in their life."The Traveling Cat Chronicles" (or its literal title, "Tabby Cat Report") is simple and charming, and I hope it gets an English-friendly release, which is far from guaranteed with Japanese-language films that don't connect to an existing franchise these days. I could see it being remade, but it's more delicate than it looks, enough that a new version could easily wind up missing the right mood.
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