The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し Neko no Ongaeshi?, lit. The Cat's Repayment) is a Japanese animated film directed by Hiroyuki Morita, produced by Studio Ghibli and theatrically released in Japan in 2002 and United States in 2003.
It received an Excellence Prize at the 2002 Japan Media Arts Festival.
The story follows a girl called Haru, a quiet, shy and unassuming high school student who has a long-suppressed ability to talk to cats. One day she saves a darkly colored, odd-eyed cat from being hit by a truck on a busy road. The cat turns out to be Lune, Prince of the Cat Kingdom. In return, the cats shower her with gifts of catnip and mice — and then she is offered the Prince's hand in marriage. Her mixed reply is taken as a yes.
Immersed in desperation over this unwanted development, Haru hears a kind female voice which tells her to seek out the Cat Bureau. Haru meets Muta, a large white cat the voice told her to seek for directions, who leads her there to meet the Baron, who happens to be a cat figurine given life by the hard work of his artist, and Toto, a stone raven who comes to life much like the Baron. Soon after meeting them, Haru and Muta are taken to the Cat Kingdom by force, leaving Toto and the Baron in the human world to follow the group from the air. The Baron and his feathered friend finally find the entrance to the Cat Kingdom on Earth — five lakes forming a cat's paw.
Haru is conducted to a feast at the castle of the Cat Kingdom and she begins to slowly turn into a cat — with tan paws, ears, and whiskers, though still mainly human — so that she will make a suitable bride for the Prince. At the feast, the Baron (in disguise) dances with Haru as part of the entertainment, and reveals to her that the more she loses herself in the kingdom, the more cat-like she will become, and that she has to discover her true self. When the Baron is discovered and is forced to fight off the guards, he and Haru are helped by Yuki, a white female cat who works as a servant in the palace and who had tried to warn Haru to leave the Cat Kingdom before she was taken to the castle. Yuki shows them an escape leading to a tunnel.
Haru, the Baron, and Muta's escape leads them through a maze to a tower, which contains a portal back into Haru's world. The King goes through a series of efforts to keep them in the Cat Kingdom long enough for Haru to remain trapped in the form of a cat so that he can still have her as his daughter-in-law, going so far as to actually collapse the tower.
Lune and his guards return to the Cat Kingdom to reveal that the King was not acting on his behalf and he has no desire to marry Haru; he has instead planned on proposing to Yuki. Also, Muta is revealed to be a notorious criminal in the Kingdom (having devoured a whole lake of fish in one session), and Yuki as being the strange voice who had advised Haru to go to the Cat Bureau. In her childhood, Haru had saved Yuki from starvation by giving her the fish cookies she was eating, and Yuki has now repaid her kindness.
Eventually, Haru, Muta and the Baron escape the Cat Realm, with the aid of Prince Lune and Toto, and Haru discovers her true self and tells the Baron how she has come to feel about him. He tells her he admires her sincerity, but it is left unclear whether he returns her affections. Haru returns to the human world with more confidence in herself; upon learning that her former flame has broken up with his girlfriend, she simply replies, "It doesn't matter anymore".
In 1995, Studio Ghibli released a film titled Whisper of the Heart, based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, about a girl writing a fantasy novel. Although the girl's life had no magical elements, short fantasy scenes depicted what the girl was writing about. The Baron was so popular that an indirect sequel was made, featuring the Baron and another girl, this one a highschool student, named Haru. Muta also returned.
The Cat Returns began life as the "Cat Project" in 1999. Studio Ghibli received a request from a Japanese theme park to create a 20-minute short starring cats. Hayao Miyazaki wanted three key things to feature in the short — these were the Baron, Muta (Moon), and a mysterious antique shop. Hiiragi was commissioned to create the manga equivalent of the short, which is called Baron: The Cat Returns (バロン 猫の男爵 Baron: Neko no Danshaku?, lit. Baron: the Cat Baron) and is published in English by Viz Media. The theme park later canceled the project.
Miyazaki then took the existing work done by the "Cat Project" and used it as a testing ground for future Ghibli directors — the short was now to be 45 minutes long. In the end, responsibility fell to Hiroyuki Morita, who had started out as an animator in 1999 for the film My Neighbors the Yamadas. Over a nine-month period he translated Hiiragi's Baron story into 525 pages of storyboards for what was to be The Cat Returns. Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki decided to go ahead with a feature-length film based entirely on Morita's storyboard; this was mainly because Haru, the main character had such a real feel to her. It became the second theatrical Studio Ghibli feature to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata.
- Chizuru Ikewaki (Anne Hathaway in the English adaption) as Haru Yoshioka, a 17-year-old girl, the protagonist of the film. In the English adaption, she is voiced by Katia Coe as a child.
- Yoshihiko Hakamada (Cary Elwes in the English adaption) as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, a cat statue with a soul and owner of the Cat Bureau. He previously appeared in Whisper of the Heart.
- Tetsu Watanabe (Peter Boyle in the English adaption) as Muta, a fat, cynical cat who leads Haru to the Baron. (The Japanese word for "pig" is "Buta", which Muta is called on a couple of occasions, much to his chagrin. In the dubbed version, they extend his name, making it sound like Mooota and calling him a cow.) His "real" name is "Renaldo Moon". He previously appeared in Whisper of the Heart.
- Yōsuke Saitō (Elliott Gould in the English adaption) as Toto, a statue of a raven who comes alive, much like the Baron. Though friends with Muta, he enjoys making cynical comments at the latter's expense.
- Takayuki Yamada (Andrew Bevis in the English adaption) as Lune, the Cat King's son. He shares his father's odd eyes and lavender-colored fur but, unlike his father, he is well-mannered and orderly.
- Aki Maeda (Judy Greer in the English adaption) as Yuki, a beautiful white servant cat of the Cat Kingdom who was once a stray that Haru helped as a child. She has glossy blue eyes and a pink ribbon around her neck. She is also chosen as a bride from Prince Lune.
- Tetsurō Tanba (Tim Curry in the English adaption) as the Cat King, King of the Cat Kingdom. He is portrayed as rude and slightly demented. He is notable for his heterochromatic eyes and the cat's eye opal he wears on his forehead. He serves as the main antagonist of the film.
- Kenta Satoi (René Auberjonois in the English adaption) as Natori, the bespectacled advisor to the king.
- Mari Hamada (Andy Richter in the English adaption) as Natoru, the excitable messenger for the king. (Natoru was female in the Japanese version; she is voiced as a male in the English version.) Based on the ears, Natoru is possibly a Scottish Fold.
- Kumiko Okae (Kristine Sutherland in the English adaption) as Naoko Yoshioka, Haru's mother.
- Hitomi Satō (Kristen Bell in the English adaption) as Hiromi
- Yōko Honna as Chika, Haru's classmate.
Additional voices in the Japanese version are provided by Atsuko Tanaka, Mitsuru Miyamoto, Katsumi Chō, Keiko Tsukamoto, Yuri Shiratori, Kayako Tsuzuki, Tae Komamura, Takayuki Suzui, Yō Ōizumi, Ken Yasuda, Yūji Kishi, Toshihiro Nakamura, Toshitaka Shimizu, Makoto Aoki, Daisuke Egawa, Tarusuke Shingaki and Hikari Yono. Additional voices in the English adaption are provided by Greg Berg, Erin Chambers, Robert Clotworthy, Terri Douglas, Courtnee Draper, Jason Harris, Brian Herskowitz, Mona Marshall, Randy Montgomery, Bradley Pierce, Diz White
- Director: Hiroyuki Morita
- Script: Reiko Yoshida
- Original author: Aoi Hiiragi
- Project concept: Hayao Miyazaki
- Executive producers: Hayao Miyazaki, Takeyoshi Matsushita, Seiichiro Ujiie, Koji Hoshino, Toshio Miyagawa, Hironori Aihara, Hideyuki Takai
- Character designer: Satoko Morikawa
- Supervising animators: Ei Inoue, Kazutaka Ozaki
- Art director: Naoya Tanaka
- Digital composite & camera supervisor: Kentaro Takahashi
- Editor: Megumi Uchida (Seyama Editing Room)
- Music: Yuji Nomi
- Music performance: Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (conductor: Hiroshi Kumagai)
- Theme song performance: Ayano Tsuji
- General producers: Toshio Suzuki, Nozomu Takahashi
- "The Cat Returns" production committee: Tokuma Shoten, Nippon Television Network, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Hakuhodo, Mitsubishi, Toho
- Production: Studio Ghibli
- The Cat Returns page at Nausicaa.net
- The Cat Returns at Online Ghibli
- Review at THEM Anime
- Neko no ongaeshi at the Internet Movie Database
- Script error