I started out as an anime fan, and only later became interested in manga. As such, a lot of my choices in what to read have been based on whether or not I enjoyed the animated version and, as a rampant Studio Ghibli fangirl, when I discovered that The Cat Returns was based on a one-volume manga, I immediately went and ordered it.
Baron: The Cat Returns follows the story of Haru, a young, clumsy girl who doesn’t seem to have all that much going for her until one day on her way home from school, she saves the prince of the Cat Kingdom from being run over by a truck. To show his gratitude, the Cat King insists that Haru marries the prince, though she is less than enthusiastic. In order to save her from this unwanted union, she soon enlists the help of two cats, the Baron and Muta, but before they can do anything Haru is whisked off to the kingdom of cats. Having landed in a bizarre and unfamiliar world, the teenage girl now finds that she must get back home before she turns into a furry feline herself.
In general, the manga’s plot follows a fairly linear path; there aren’t too many twists or turns and the whole thing remains easy to follow from start to finish. With a hefty dose of the fantastical, a hint of peril, and a sprinkling of comedy, Baron: The Cat Returns entertains from start to finish. That being said, the narrative’s mid-section would benefit immensely from a little fleshing-out. While the introduction to Haru’s situation and her subsequent attempt to escape are both well-paced, the segment from the hapless girl meeting the Cat King to the sudden realisation that she needs to break free and return home spans only a handful of pages, most of which cover a little of Muta’s past or Haru’s memories of her pet cat, Yuki. This particular section feels too rushed, and as a result takes a little of the believability out of the whole story, which is a shame given how the previous part does a commendable job of exploring the kingdom.
While the whole idea of different worlds existing alongside our own is by no means unique, the Cat Kingdom still manages to captivate the reader. The idea of the ‘reverse sphere’ world in which Haru can look up into the sky and see the lake that she was standing beside a short while ago feels like something out of an Escher painting. This not only adds an interesting quirk to an already quirky narrative, but also emphasises the alien – or should I say feline – nature of this strange land.
While pleasing to the eye, Baron: The Cat Returns’ visuals don’t break new ground or take the reader’s breath away. Nonetheless, each character looks pleasant enough and their appearances ideally suit their personalities. Haru’s design successfully portrays her normality without being nondescript, though her eyes seem to exist in a state of perpetual sparkle – something that initially seems a bit off-putting. Muta, as easily the most comical character of the story, has a particularly well considered appearance, which at first glance seems simplistic. However, to mangaka Aoi Hiiragi’s credit, with the aid of a few minimal tweaks he is able to easily reflect his current mood, and thus add to the comedic content of the plot.
Baron: The Cat Returns boasts impressive shading throughout, which not only brings the story to life, but also makes the Cat Kingdom feel all the more realistic. In particular, the majestic use of screentone effectively conveys the appearance of water in the lake, and later creates a more softened appearance to the imagery, which is wholly befitting of the scenes depicting Haru’s memories. Nicely balancing this is an appropriate use of hatching which helps to distinguish between the various textures of the environment.
With Baron: The Cat Returns spanning only a single volume in total, expecting in-depth characterisation would be an exercise in futility. The development in the Haru’s personality is adequate, but not outstanding. Her introduction immediately portrays her as a clumsy, goofy, yet, ultimately, likeable young girl, and while clear that the teen matures during the tale, her initial traits are still prevalent throughout. While acceptable, expanding upon the change Haru goes through would certainly benefit the narrative immensely and make her that little more relatable to the reader.
The remaining cast members remain woefully underdeveloped, and though affable and amusing, most receive little to no back-story. While a little of Muta’s past receives brief mention at one point, the only thing really known about the Baron is that he is a doll rather than an actual cat. However, instead of taking the opportunity to delve into his past, the manga invites more unanswered questions by offering a glimpse into the power and strength that the Baron hides, only to blatantly refuse any explanation. As one of the main protagonists, this lack of history is not only a shame, but also a wasted opportunity.
Comprising of attractive visuals, an interesting and humorous cast, and a solid fantasy narrative at its foundation, Baron: The Cat Returns is an entertaining read. Don’t expect a perfectly rounded story with no holes, as the lack of characterisation for some of the main characters unfortunately leaves a gap large enough to substitute as Muta’s bed. But with its comedic charm and inoffensive amiability it is definitely worth a look, especially for fans of the genre… or cats.