Earwig and The Witch. Dir. by Gorō Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli. 2020

EARWIG AND THE WITCH : Black Cats in Witchcraft

Earwig and the Witch tells the story of Aya, an orphan girl adopted by a witch called Yaga and a demon called Mandrake. All along this adventure, Aya only has one friend, the cat of the house, Thomas. Through making potions, drawing and developing plans to take vengeance upon Yaga, the clear antagonist of the film, they create a bond and help each other to live through this. Thomas helps Aya understand witchcraft, and she helps Thomas get a better life. All along, he is not treated as a pet that everyone loves; he is treated as a familiar, and only a familiar. His job is to help the witch do her spells, and that’s it; if he does not, he will be punished. We can find multiple animal/human relations through the film, such as friendship and coworker. 

This piece belongs to the family and adventure film categories, which means it appeals to all ages and is thrilling thanks to the action of the plot. What mostly characterises it is its blend of CGI animation and Russian folktales that gives us a child story tangled in a witchy vibe. In family films, animals are often the funny or/and cute companion that goes on an adventure with the main character. In fact, in this film the only animal that has an important role is Thomas, and he embodies his role of comrade and friend very well. By bonding with Aya, he reveals to us his animalistic side through his behaviour but also his human one by his reactions. Choosing animation for a film about a child and her pet friend goes well together, as Thomas can have any personality possible, and he can look like anything the director wants. 

Baba Yaga in Earwig and the Witch
Baba Yaga in Russian Folktales

Thomas is not only a cat, but also a familiar. He lives with a witch and is black, reminding us iconic confidants such as Salem or Yiji, making it a bit cliché. The aim of a familiar is to help achieve the spells and has a lot of importance. Thomas is aware of that and brags about it. He already has an important role at the very beginning of the film; he is more considered than any other animal. For example, they use other animals in spells, such as frogs, fishes or snakes, killing them and acting as if they were less important. Thomas has his role and job like any other character and is as important; he is at the same level as the human characters and shows some similarities with them.

Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch

First of all, Thomas can talk. He does not use his voice in the first half of the film, but then, he decides to answer one of Aya’s questions when they are alone. His only excuse for never doing it before is that he is not ‘very talkative’


By saying this, he proves two things: that he embodies the role of the funny side character, but also that he is shy, thus having a personality. Him not talking for the first forty minutes of the film highlights his amusing side; it surprises us as well as Aya, but only for a few seconds. She quickly moves on as if it were not that weird since he lives with a witch. We might think that Yaga cursed him or that he can naturally talk because he is a black cat, destined to be familiar, and given the ability to talk, anything is possible.

We can also note that the Japanese voice of Thomas sounds ‘human’. It does not feel like we are facing a cat that talks, but more like a cat with a human voice trying to replicate cat noises. This may feel a bit awkward because too humanised when we hear him squeals or literally pronouncing meow without ‘performing it’. Why choose such a style of voicing Thomas? Is it simply their way of talking like a cat would, or could we consider that Thomas got a sort of accent when he started speaking the human language? I am mentioning the human language because it is clear that cats have their own language here. When Aya and him are making a potion, he says the spell, but he gets frustrated because he cannot remember the exact word. Instead of swearing in human language, he growled and said, ‘Meow’. Later on, he laughed as he was rolling on his back on the table and said that he swore by saying ‘meow’, he also added that he does not like to swear, meaning he probably has a perception of politeness too, humanising him even more. Him saying this but rolling on the table shows how ‘hybrid’ he is: half cat, half human. Thomas mostly acts as Aya’s teacher, directing her into making the potions, giving her advice about the owner of the house, and answering all of her questions. By giving her advice, we could also see them as a duo : one complete another.

To Aya, he is more than a pet; he’s a friend and acolyte. The relationship between them is friendly, but also bossy, as he guides her through all her ideas. She easily accepts the situation; she is not shocked by him reading and knowing spells. One thing we can notice is that she always calls him ‘Custard’ throughout the film, the name of her best friend, proving that she does not differentiate them. Her cat friend reminds her of her human one; they help her and deserve her love equally. For example, during one scene (39’01-40’18), she calls him Thomas, and a few seconds later she calls him Custard. This is the first scene of the two of them bonding together. Thomas actually reacted to this mitsake by meowing, meaning he understood. We can note that as soon as she felt comfortable with him, she started considering him as a friend and found some parts of Custard in Thomas, leading her to mix them up. 

Thomas not having any surname, even by his owner Yaga who calls other dogs by cute names but then yells ‘Thomas’ and threatens him, makes us feel like she does not see him as a pet or animal, but only as her witchcraft colleague. Even the way she grabs shows a lack of compassion and is quite violent.

He has this weird place in which he does not appear as an animal, which he physically is, nor as a human, because he still thinks like a cat, acts like one, and looks like one. When they end one of the spells, Thomas shakes his head once for good (a move that cats usually do when cleaning themselves), and his tongue goes out for a second: this is one of the animalistic points that we can remark on. The fact that he speaks and has a very expressive face is what humanises him, but he still has an animal side that shows. For instance, before they start making their own protection spell with Aya, they walk outside. At this moment, Aya walks into some mud and groans that she is ‘all dirty now’ to which Thomas answers that it’s okay because she simply has to ‘lick herself up later’ as in cleaning herself like a cat. Despite living with humans and being able to communicate with them, he apparently does not know a lot about them.

On the other hand, despite the “stiff computer-generated animation which makes it harder  to find much emotional resonance” with the movie, Thomas’s exaggerated reactions stand out. It humanises him a lot, making it a possible trait of intensified realism, made to characterise him and allow the audience to connect with him emotionally. This highlights a common thing about animals in family films: Thomas is a funny character capable of making anyone feel compassion and love for him. For example, during the scene where Yaga makes a potion (26’23- 27 ’31), Thomas clearly feels fear as Yaga searches for him to start the spell. He is turning his back; his eyes widen, and his pupils become tiny while his ears bend. His huge fluorescent green eyes strongly contrast with his fur; we can only see that in the dark, which gives an unrealistic dimension to his characterisation. He also still walks on his fours like a cat, rolls over for attention, sleeps in weird places (such as bowls), his tail always move behind him, however; he never purrs. Purring is a sign of comfort and joy to a cat; him never purring must prove that he is either never truly happy or at ease or that he is ‘too’ human, to do something so animalistic as purring.

During this scene, he does not say a word, but his body language tells us a lot. He is clearly scared; he won’t stop shivering and bending his ears while giving concerned looks. He is sitting between flasks and kitchen utensils, fixing a point in the distance. He is blocked by fear, and he tries to make himself as little as possible with his head bent forward. We can see the difference in consideration of animals in this scene as Yaga makes a spell for a ‘little and lovely dog’ while she punishes her cat if he does not come when she calls (screams) for him. He is scared of her because he is actually traumatised by her ‘worm punishment’, but he also adds that he ‘does not like her type of witchcraft’ because it makes him feel like he is “being stroked the wrong way,” something only animals experience. Later on, we have a shot of Thomas and Aya, both scared for their lives. Thomas shivers and has his mouth wide open. He also growls an unhappy cat would, ears still bend big eyes wide open, and saying ‘no’ slowly with his head. Aya seems putrefied, eyes wide open, eyebrows lifted and mouth closed with shoulders up. As the spell goes on, we have close-ups on Thomas, who shivers during the whole process. On the other hand, Aya looks at the potion with sparkly eyes, mouth closed, seems impressed and has bigger eyes than usual. She also gasps in admiration. Her eyes getting unusually bigger when happy is quite animalistic, especially in animation. 

We find this on animals or kids so as to make them cute, but it feels like it adds a non-human twist to her. During the whole film, she does not make only intelligent choices (such as putting the worms in her wall when she knows Mandrake, the demon, lives on the other side, which makes him angry). Most of the time, it’s Thomas who remarks her wrongs and who explains to her everything that she ignores. They represent two opposites in friendship; through this adventure, we feel a bond creating itself quite quickly. 

The aim of having such a silly cat as a companion could encourage children and humans to go towards animals and bond with them. They show that having an animal for a friend is possible as they are not stupid and can feel emotions and respond to it. Thomas being a black cat, it could also help calm the stereotypes of the ‘weird’ and ‘scary’ black cat of the ‘creepy’ witch. A lot of pieces of art actually contributed to feed the hate against black cats by enforcing the idea that they bring bad luck, resulting in tons of black cats getting killed or abandoned in the streets.  

Since this film is directed by Gorō Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki and made by Studio Ghibli and NHK; it was long-awaited. Nonetheless it received a lot of criticism…Many people did not get  the point of the film and its strong resemblance to  Kiki’s Delivery Service: 

« Earwig and the Witch” isn’t visually dynamic enough to be more than a lumpy cover version of Hayao’s greatest hits »

« It end up leading to dead ends, making the journey feel incomplete »

Earwig and The Witch
Kiki Delivery’s Services

But them looking the same does not take away the impact that this film can have on children and their perception of black cats. Thanks to the CGI animation chosen, Thomas is a cutely designed character made to appeal to children but also anyone with a soft spot for animals. His cute behaviour mixed up to his appearance and extreme reaction to everything (possible thanks to animation) made him an original and memorable character, thus striking the audience.


Primary sources :

Miyazaki Gorō, Earwig and the Witch, Studio Ghibli & NHK, 2020

Secondary sources : 

Ebert Roger, ‘Earwig and the Witch Movie Review’, Roger Ebert.com, 2021

Earwig and the Witch movie review (2021) | Roger Ebert

Philips Maya, ‘Earwig and the Witch : Domestic Incantations’, The New York Times, 2021, ‘Earwig and the Witch’ Review: Domestic Incantations – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Earwig and the Witch, exclusive clip, Elysian Film Group’s Youtube Channel, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJalOhbAmfw&list=PLrS1KtbAjGIcU6HphcnWMygUrJ5JqCFVG&index=9&ab_channel=ElysianFilmGroup


Abrams Simon, ‘Earwig and the Witch Movie Review’, Roger Ebert.com, 2021, Earwig and the Witch movie review (2021) | Roger Ebert

Philips Maya, ‘Earwig and the Witch : Domestic Incantations’, The New York Times, 2021 ‘Earwig and the Witch’ Review: Domestic Incantations – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Robinson Tasha, ‘Studio Ghibli’s CGI test run Earwig and the Wicth is better than it looks’, Polygon, 2021 Earwig and the Witch review: Ghibli’s first 3D movie is better than it looks – Polygon

Debruge Peter, ‘Earwig and the Witch’ Review: Studio Ghibli’s First CG Outing Is Missing the Magic’, Variety, 2021 https://variety.com/2021/film/reviews/earwig-and-the-witch-review-1234896618/amp/