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Baron: The Cat Returns
by Aoi Hiiragi
VIZ Media, $9.99, 224pp
Published: April 2005

Though translated to English, this manga is printed in the Japanese format in order to preserve the orientation of the original artwork. You start at the back of the book and read from right to left.

The story begins with an awkward and shy schoolgirl named Haru who is having a rough day: late to school, stepping in puddles and embarrassing herself in front of the boy she has a crush on. On her way home from school, she saves a cat from being hit by a car.

Much to her shock and surprise, the cat stands up on two legs and speaks to her, thanking her for saving his life and that Haru will be repaid for her heroic deed.

Unfortunately, her reward comes in the form of live canned mice being delivered to her house and catnip winds wafting through the streets. In addition, she learns that the cat she rescued is the prince of the Cat Kingdom and his father, the Cat King, in way of honoring her, decides she will marry his son and won't take no for an answer.

 A mysterious voice tells her to seek out the Cat Office for help in escaping this unenviable situation. That's where she'll meet the suave Baron, who in actuality is a living cat doll, dressed in dapper clothes and a top hat; his overweight and crabby cat partner Muta; and a crow named Toto.

Baron's house leads to a Cat World, where Haru is quickly kidnapped by the king's guard to become the bride of the Cat Prince. However, for this to work, Haru must be transformed into a cat herself, a proposition which she does not like at all. Appealing to the Baron and Muta, Haru attempts to escape the Cat World and find her way back home.

"Baron: The Cat Returns" is a charming story in the "Alice in Wonderland" mode, with Haru very much the stranger in a strange land. Baron is a dashing character, a tuxedo-wearing swordfighter who is always willing to help a lady in distress. Muta is a reluctant sidekick, but rough and ready to scrap with anyone. Toto, will lend a wing to help a friend. That mysterious voice she hears turns out to be an important part of Haru's past. A great story for all ages, it is a straight-forward fantasy adventure with enough surprises and delights to keep entertaining.

Two of Hiiragi Aoi's manga in this series, "Whisper of the Heart" and "The Cat Returns," were adapted into animated films by Japan's most renowned animators at Studio Ghibli. Although "Baron: The Cat Returns" is the third in the series, due to its nature it can be read alone without any previous knowledge of the preceding books.

This was a fun read with likeable characters. I love the concept of parallel worlds cats can travel between. "Baron: The Cat Returns" has wonderful illustrations and is a magical tale of the consequences of saving a cat! Though I have yet to see it (yet being the optimal word), I can understand why the story was turned into a movie by Studio Ghibli. ~~ Dee Astell

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