Quirky, hyper-manic schoolgirl Miyo Sasaki (voiced by Mirai Shida) relentlessly pursues handsome but reserved classmate Kento Hinode (Natsuki Hanae) even though the latter does not seem particularly interested. Along with enduring the daily embarrassment of Miyo’s amorous advances, Kento bears the burden of his mother's expectations. The one 'person' to whom Kento can confide his woes is his beloved cat Taro. What Kento does not know is that Taro is actually Miyo magically transformed into a cat with the aid of an enchanted mask procured from the mysterious Cat Storekeeper (Koichi Yamadera); who also happens to be a giant talking cat. Miyo, looking to escape her own troubles at home, starts to spend more and more time in her feline form, growing closer to her beloved Kento and able to express herself freely. Not realizing spending all this time as a cat can cost Miyo the ability to turn back into a human.
Screenwriter Mari Okada is among the most vital and compelling voices in contemporary Japanese animation. Between Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2013), The Anthem of the Heart (2015) and her own directorial debut Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (2018), Okada has a gift for interweaving gripping mystery stories with a solid psychological grasp and heartfelt empathy for the plight of alienated young people in modern Japan. On the surface the Okada-scripted A Whisker Away seems like a simple continuation of Japan's long tradition of magical cat anime. Specifically stories where cute girls are transformed into cute cat girls. Think Catnapped! (1995) or Studio Ghibli's The Cat Returns (2002), itself an extrapolation from the story-within-a-story featured in Whisper of the Heart (1995). Superstar manga artist Yumiko Oshima crafted arguably the most substantial treatment of a star-crossed human/feline romance with her critically lauded (in Japan anyway) Star of Cotton (1984). However in A Whisker Away Miyo's fantastical feline antics are largely a means by which Okada mounts a critique of Japan's stifling social etiquette. And how these rigid traditions affect how young people interact with both their peers and parents.
Typically a western treatment of this kind of magical wish-fulfilment story would make its heroine an awkward introvert who has trouble expressing her feelings. Miyo however has no such difficulty and that is precisely the problem. In a society that draws a clear distinction between personal feelings and those feelings it is acceptable to express in public, Miyo's bubbly, outgoing, almost goofily unabashed honesty renders her a social misfit. Her very public declarations of affection and protective attitude towards Hinode cause him no end of embarrassment. Ironically Miyo has to turn herself into a cat in order to forge a human connection with the boy she loves. At the same time the film gradually clarifies that Miyo's romantic infatuation with Hinode is as much part of an attempt to escape dealing with her own awkward feelings about the mother that abandoned her and a well-meaning stepmom with whom she can't seem to connect. The latter also confides in a pet cat of her own, leading to a plot twist that drags the film in a more sinister Twilight Zone-ish direction.
Once the film goes full Spirited Away (2001) taking Miyo on a journey into a magical realm of cats it devolves a somewhat more conventional and derivative fantasy adventure. Slightly less stimulating than the more nuanced and penetrating psychological study that preceded it though certainly no less watchable. An interlude in a magical bar full of dejected cat people that were once human beings ranks among the more memorable sequences in the latter half. Along with scenes where the alternately affable and imposing Cat Storekeeper keeps bursting through floorboards and walls like a horror movie villain, underlining his perfidious nature by dropping random English language wisecracks. Ultimately A Whisker Away transcends its more clichéd aspects by virtue of a genuinely beguiling and complicated love story and message stressing the importance of expressing oneself honestly.