Many Japanese films for kids are entries in venerable anime series belonging to multiplatform franchises. To their target audience they are pre-sold and, in their formulas, pre-seen. And that audience is by and large domestic. One big exception is “Stand By Me Doraemon,” a 3-D CG anime starring a blue robot cat and his boy companion. After the film’s 2014 success in Japan, it made an astounding $87 million in China, a territory considered all-but-closed to Japanese films.
Will “Rudolph the Black Cat,” another 3-D anime for kids distributed by Toho, also hit the box office gong here and overseas? The short answer is, unfortunately, “no.” Based on a children’s book series by Hiroshi Saito that has sold more than 1 million copies since it started in 1987, this film about a stray kitten taken under the wing of the neighborhood boss cat is thoroughly domestic and local. There is cat-chat about hiragana, Kitakoiwa in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, and the stops on the Tomei Expressway. Kids in Shanghai probably won’t relate.
Which is too bad, since this film, co-directed by veteran animators Kunihiko Yuyama (the “Pokemon” series) and Motonori Sakakibara (“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”), has that rarity in animated films of any sort, other than ones made for the classroom: a clear educational purpose, entertainingly realized. And like the better animated films for kids, from “Bambi” onward, it deals in life truths as well as fun fantasies. It may make you tear up, whatever your age.
As for the animation itself, “Rudolph” is technically years behind the products of the Hollywood behemoth Pixar. But given their limited resources the film’s animators have done an impressive job of making their cats walk, jump and otherwise behave like actual felines, when they aren’t comically acting human. And they have made Japan look three-dimensionally real in every finely observed detail, save for the somewhat underpopulated look of the streets.
Rudolph the Black Cat (Rudolph to Ippaiattena) Rating3.5 out of 5 Run Time 89 mins Language Japanese Opens Now showing
Our hero is a little black cat named Rudolph (voiced by Mao Inoue), who is living a happy life in Gifu as the beloved pet of a young girl when, through no fault of his own, he finds himself on a truck bound for Tokyo. He ends up in a shitamachi (old downtown) neighborhood, scrambling to avoid being trampled or run over — a country bumpkin in the big city.
Miraculously, he is rescued by a big, gruff striped cat who calls himself Ippaiattena (Ryohei Suzuki), which translates as “I have a lot.” This, we soon see, is a private joke on the various names humans have bestowed on him as he makes his rounds begging for food. Strays, he instructs Rudolph (who he is soon calling “Rudo”), “have to be patient.” Meaning they have put up with human vagaries — and meow smilingly for a meal.
Ippaiattena has also improved his chances for a full stomach by mastering human written language. The bulletin board at the local school cafeteria, he shows Rudo, tells him what is being served and when. The books at the library, he informs his eager student, have fascinating pictures and words about other animals around the world, including the biggest cat of all, the lion. Rudo imagines a thrilling (and thrillingly visualized) journey to Africa.
A street-hardened growler with a gentle heart, Ippaiattena rules the neighborhood cats firmly but fairly and, under his watchful eye, Rudo begins to shed his scaredy-cat ways. But he also longs to return to Gifu, and learning kanji, he starts to realize, may come in handy.
There is much more to the story, including a bulldog called Devil (Arata Furuta) who is the arch-enemy of all cats and a skinny calico named Butch (Norito Yashima) who is the film’s hyper, comic relief. But unlike some anime that is hyper-plotted, “Rudolph” is simple to follow and understand. In fact, for non-Japanese fans, it may serve as an excellent introduction to the life, language and sights of Japan, from a cat’s point of view.
If Rudo can unlock the mysteries of those kanji-filled license plates and highway signs, why can’t you?