Life is like a storm. In its winds, we are thrown and whirled in chaotic mayhem. The works of Mari Okada have a flair for pulling on the emotions of lives fraught with doubts and sadness, yet her stories never stray from the value of life. In ‘A Whisker Away’ we experience alongside Miyo Sasaki the ripples of family-breakdown, inter-generational disconnect and cultural prejudice on the person. When the weight of life becomes too burdensome, Miyo’s desire to swap life for the simpler one of a cat may become ominously relatable.
Miyo is a bundle of energy and cheerfulness when we meet her, but as the layers of her persona are peeled it becomes clear that there is more to Miyo Sasaki that is let on. Muge; the name bestowed on her by her classmates is an allusion to her incomprehensibly eccentric behaviour. In her world only a few people exist, the crowds are reduced to heartless and mindless strawmen and only the main actors of her life remain; Muge has closed herself off and in turn, she is ostracized.
Divorce holds a stigma in Asian society that we are often reminded of; Muge’s neighbour relentlessly questions her as to her living condition and she is bullied for her family situation as a child. Okada posits the flaws of a society that exacerbates an already dire situation. The neighbour’s concern betrays no malice, just the misunderstanding of complex family dynamics that are becoming increasingly common in the modern age. The world has become a hostile place for Muge.
Okada reminds us that people are not the products of a vacuum, often we are pieces and products of a whole. Muge, a child of divorce, lives with her father and his new partner while the opening scenes of the movie hints at a more alien relation with her mother. We are defined by the relations with those that surround us, chief amongst which are parents. In the small world of a child parents are an everything, they are a permanence. When that permanence is lost Muge’s world spins out of control. The Muge we see is detached and resentful of her parents; she is haunted by memories of past happiness. In her clinginess and obsessiveness in our story’s deuteragonist, Kentaro Hinode, Muge betrays her cravings for human attachment. To her Hinode maybe a sun in an endless night.
Emotions are not so easily described and are even more complex to relay. Muge in her grief is burdened by a mask; she feels that she cannot face the world without the strength of her fake smile; sometimes it is easier to pretend that everything is alright. But Okada through the meanderings of Muge’s life Okada reminds us of the downturns of attempting to live a life away from oneself.
As Muge makes her way through life adorned with the ability to take on the guise of Taro the cat we are invited to meditate the consequences of living a life that is not your own. Taro may be able to ravel in her time spent with Hinode, but an intangible wall separates Muge from Hinode. We are reminded that bonds are a two-way street, Muge cannot create a lasting relationship with Hinode without opening herself to him.
Hinode, like Muge, is also burdened by the uncontrollable tides of his life. He cannot convey to his mother his desire to follow in the steps of his grandfather and become a potter; he too feels misunderstood and tied by the expectations of society. In many ways, Muge and Hinode both suffer from the incomprehension of those around them. Hinode does not feel good enough to live up to the outgoing and assertive front that Muge puts on; he cannot know of the struggles of the person behind the mask.
“I Wish I Could Speak My Mind Like Her.” – Hinode
Similarly, in her rejection of her current family situation Muge creates a schism with Kaoru. Kaoru too suffers from the prejudice of a society that rejects families that do not conform to traditional standards, yet she strives on in her role and in her desire to be closer to Muge; in her effort to separate herself from the world Muge has become oblivious to the good around her. She denies her own appreciation of Kaoru. In the picture that A Whisker Away paints of the world it does not forget its nuances; the people around Muge and Hinode too are in motion. Their parents and friends each have their own struggles and circumstances, but in the constrictions of life sometimes we forget to pay attention to one another.
Upon realising the faults of her approach Muge attempts to bridge the gap between herself and Hinode through a letter. However, she is ridiculed for it by the boys of her class and rejected by the embarrassed Hinode. Again, Muge falls prey to the incomprehension of society, yet still, her pain is bottled down. Muge cannot cry, instead, it is her friend Yuriko that does; society’s pressure and overbearing sadness have made something out of place within Muge. Mari Okada’s portrayal of Miyo Sasaki is a melancholic one, even when confronted with overbearing sadness, Muge has become unable to reach out to her feelings. Even when lashing out against her father and Kaoru tears cannot flow from Muge, her face instead contorts and grimaces. She has become lost in her masquerade.
“So What If I’m Forcing Myself To Smile. I Do It Because I Want To.” – Miyo
However, to deny is not to erase for Muge like it is in life. Rising societal pressure and bottled down feelings soon come to a boil, leading Muge to become entrenched in her Taro Persona. Something inside Muge has let go.
The ominous and ethereal mask merchant that haunt Muge is in many ways a metaphor for the creeping anxiety that haunts her. Ever present, it urges and pushes to let go of the mask of Sasaki Miyo and to embrace the simpler feline life. Okada equates the temptation of living away from the complications of one’s own life to an alluring yet eerily foreboding sentiment.
“Cat Don’t Need Toilet Paper. We Clean Ourselves With Our Tongue. It’s Eco-Friendly” – Mask Merchant
In abandoning her former life Okada allows us and Muge to experience the consequences of her disappearance from an outside point of view. To realise the attachment that the others have to her re-ignite Muge’s desire to come back to her human form. When faced with the unease of Kinako wearing her mask and living life as her, Muge is forced to confront the things that she misses about her old life; resentment she may have had but in the end, she is still attached to her parents, friends and Hinode. But she has become entangled in the form of Taro, slowly losing grasp with the human world, her loved ones and what it means to be Miyo Sasaki.
In A Whisker Away, like in life, it is often hard to express oneself, even more so when it comes from the thralls of the heart. Muge is hurt and wary of the world, she has lost faith and with it her ability to voice her true feelings. It is only through Yoriko’s exposition that Muge’s true feelings are finally articulated. It is hard to say out loud the things that hurt us, even more so when it is the people we love that make us hurt.
“That’s When I Realized. Muge Always Puts On A Brave Face. She Pretends To Be Alright, Even When She’s Hurting Inside.” – Yoriko
In her struggle Okada emphasises the downturns of living a life that is not your own; Muge is on a journey without return it seems. Similarly, through Kinako’s vain attempt at easing Kaoru’s grief over her ineluctable passing A Whisker Away posits a contrast between those feelings that we hold dear to our hearts and those that are but a mere appearance. Kinako cannot replace Kaoru’s feelings for her by making her Muge a better daughter to Kaoru; feelings born out of true kinship are not so easily substituted.
In her search for her true face, Muge crosses the bridge that leads onto the Cat World. An oneiric world populated only by cats. Felines have a special place in Japanese literature, they represent the mysterious and the intangible by their fickle and free-spirited behaviour. Here too Okada plays on that air, As Muge crosses the bridge the world she enters is alien and ethereal, it is a separation from her reality. Muge is inching ever so closer to losing the life of Miyo Sasaki forever and her adventure in the cat world is a reminder of that.
As she comes to meet others, that like her, have run away from their humanity for that of the feline life, she comes to realise their qualms; they are haunted by regret. This is a warning to young Muge about being too rash in abandoning a life where she is loved; life may get hard sometimes, but it is worth to strive for, Okada seems to tell us. Through the short appearance of these characters, Muge is given a brief but important view of what the future may hold for her.
As with her relationship with Hinode, nothing seems to be more appropriate then to confront her feelings. The former too, upon realising his feelings for Muge ventures into the cat world to help her. In a sense, Muge’s disappearance was also the catalyst for Hinode to face the consequences of losing Muge. Rarely in life do we get a second at the things we have lost, time moves on always.
The Mask Merchant’s plan to steal away Muge’s lifespan and the heavy imagery of hourglasses used in the film is a reminder that time is a one-way street; you cannot get back the time that you have lost. Again, Okada implies that the time spent as someone you are not is time wasted, the relationship you forge and the experiences you live will never truly be your own; just a feeble dream.
Ultimately, It is not any shape-shifting powers that allow our protagonists to bond. Rather it is through understanding and facing their feelings for one another, and for those around them that they climb the insurmountable wall. A Whisker Away is a story about growing up to grasp the things that we hold dear in life, and not letting go.