Content Warning: This article discusses depression and suicide.
Anime films often hit the heart hard. From Your Name to Weathering with You or pretty much any film that has come out of Hiyao Miyazaki’s creativity, these beautifully animated stories often look into the viewer’s fears, hopes, and dreams and show them a part of themselves that they may not realize exist. A Whisker Away, the newest Netflix Original Anime out of Studio Colorido does just this. Directed by Junichi Satoh and Tomotake Shibayama, written by Mari Okada, A Whisker Away focuses on Miyo Sasaki, a young girl with a bright personality and boundless energy. But beneath the mask of happiness that Miyo wears is pain she hides from everyone — even herself.
Having been abandoned by her mother, she feels unwanted and ignored. Additionally, the boy she loves, her friend Hinode, doesn’t acknowledge her affection. Because of this, when she is offered the chance to become a cat, she realizes that the only way to get close to him is to transform. But as the story progresses, the boundary between herself and the cat becomes ambiguous, as she finds herself turning to her cat form for longer periods of time to separate from her pain. Her escapism eventually leads her to give up her life as a human after her confession of love is not only ridiculed by the class bullies, but by Hinode himself.
The power of A Whisker Away comes in Miyo’s duality and how she wears the masks she needs to. One mask is in front of her friends, laughing, smiling, and projecting the identity of an eccentric girl just looking to make the people around her smile. This mask hides her pain, her loneliness, and her depression. It’s the smile she puts on, the jokes she tells. It hits home. While some wear their depression others hide it —I hide it. I smile, I wave, I hold the tiny broken pieces of myself together by throwing myself into more work, by taking on other’s problems. I am here for them. And because I am here for others, I forget to ask who is here for me.
Sometimes when we hurt, it’s easier to smile than it is to be vulnerable. In these moments, we look for any way to escape it, to push it away. Turning to escapism, in whatever form, offers us moments to leave behind our pain. It can be movies, writing, music, video games, and in Myiyo’s case, it’s becoming a cat.
The second mask that Miyo wears is a physical one. A white and red cat mask acts as the magical way for her to transform into a cat, bringing her closer to Hinode and allowing her to flee her home, her stepmom, and the painful reminder that her mom isn’t there. Sold to her by the Mask Seller who is looking to exploit her fears and sadness for his personal gain, this cat mask is her only solace. As she escapes into her feline form Miyo hides from the world, refusing to engage it on its terms, instead, trying to build her own.
The problem is that in choosing to abandon her human self, Miyo begins to lose the parts of her that makes being a cat worth it. Chiefly, as a cat who can understand humans, she can comfort and be comforted by Hinode. But as her language leaves her, the world becomes confusing, unsettling, and Miyo begins to question if leaving her life was worth it. Miyo abandoning her human life for a cat one hit me hard. Whether it was meant as an allegory for suicide, only the writer can know, but that’s where it hit me.
My sophomore year of high school, my best friend committed suicide. At the time, I was suicidal myself, on a destructive path with an eating disorder in the driver’s seat, and choosing to abandon the world was a choice I thought I wanted to make. But, like Miyo, I got a window into what happens to those you leave behind. It was seeing her family cry at her funeral. It was my own emptiness I felt while saying goodbye and putting together her memorial that snapped me out of it. It didn’t cure me, but it did make me seek to get better and embark on the seven-year struggle for both mental and physical health.
For Miyo, as she begins to lose her identity as a human, she begins to see how people react. Her friends frantically search for her, her father and step-mother are just as worried, and Hinode, who hurt her, is just as concerned. As she begins to see love flow around her and realize how her depression had ignored it all, she begins to regret her decision. With her life force slipping away, she begins to fight to get it back, to keep her humanity and come back to the world she was so desperate to leave.
Miyo’s journey in A Whisker Away is about her escaping her depression and leaving her masks behind. It’s about learning how to be true to yourself in pain and in happiness and to trust people to be there for you, even when people have left you before. A Whisker Away is a reminder that sometimes, loneliness, even in its most crushing of forms, isn’t the end. That there are people there for you, even when it doesn’t feel like it, and to keep fighting. But as much as this is a message for those who feel like Miyo, it’s also a film for the family members and friends.
The outward strength and happiness you see in people isn’t always the truth of a person’s life and it’s on you to make your love apparent —to reach out and fight for the Miyo in your life when it looks like she is giving up fighting for herself. While these themes are heavy, the animation style and storytelling are executed with a level of care that makes it the perfect mental health story to share with the entire family. It’s never too early to learn that it gets better, and it’s always the perfect time to know that you can make an impact on someone’s life.
A Whisker Away is available exclusively on Netflix.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.