199. CAT SOUP (2001)

Nekojiru-so

“Many animators participated in the creation of Nekojiru-so, but I wonder how many of the animators fully understood the concept and manifested that understanding in the animation. When Yuasa and I explained things during animation meetings, we really didn’t understand it ourselves either.”–Tatsuo Satō, Cat Soup director, DVD commentary

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tatsuo Satō

FEATURING: Not applicable (the film is animated with no dialogue)

PLOT: After nearly drowning in a bathtub, a young anthropomorphic cat sees his sick older sister being led away by a purple figure, follows it, and engages in a tug of war in which he recovers part of her body. He then returns home where he finds the sister still ill and convalescing, and gives her the part he recovered from the purple figure. She recovers from her sickness, and the pair embark on a series surreal adventures throughout the cartoon cosmos, although the sister is only half-alive until they eventually locate a mystical flower that restores her.

Still from Cat Soup (2001)
BACKGROUND:

  • Cat Soup is based on a series of manga by the artist Nekojiru (a pseudonym that actually translates as “cat soup”). Although Nekojiru’s stories were also dreamlike, they were more structured than this adaptation, and little of Cat Soup is taken directly from her works. Nekojiru committed suicide in 1998.
  • Technically, the Japanese title translates as something like “Cat Soup Flower.”
  • Director Tatsuo Satō specializes in television anime and has directed episodes of “Martian Successor Nadesico,” “Ninja Scroll: The Series,” and “Bodacious Space Pirates.”
  • Co-writer Masaaki Yuasa also produced and was the animation director; he has since directed his own feature (2004’s Mind Game) and several shorts and TV episodes, while continuing to work as an animator on other projects.
  • Because it was an OVA (“Original Video Animation” in anime parlance, meaning direct-to-DVD with no theatrical release), Cat Soup was not eligible to compete in many film festivals, although it did take honors at a few (including recognition as Fantasia’s Best Short Film of 2001).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Choosing a single image from Cat Soup, which is a 30-minute barrage of insane, enchanting, and frequently disturbing visions made by animators who had been freed from almost any constraints on what they were allowed to imagine, is a tall task. We selected a still from the scene which literally enacts the title. Making this “cat soup” involves dressing up in mouse dominatrix gear and chopping up the yummy kitties with a giant pair of scissors.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In some ways I envy the reviewer who was the first to get to Cat Soup and dub it “Hello Kitty on acid.” (Although I actually haven’t been able to track down the critic who first said that; perhaps the description is so obvious that everyone just assumes someone else came up with it before they did). I think a better description, perhaps, would be “Hello Kitty goes to Hell,” because the acidic hallucinations here all occur in the context of cat spirits wandering a weird world halfway between life and death, a place where God appears as a carnival magician and cuts planets in half and slurps their molten cores like soup. The brisk 30 minute runtime is the perfect length for this nearly plot-free pageant of morbid feline surrealism, which hits your surreal receptors hard, but doesn’t last so long you build up a tolerance to the insanity.


English-language DVD trailer for Cat Soup

COMMENTS: Cat Soup is a short feature that flummoxes even anime fans willing to eat up fare about giant robots battling during the apocalypse, teenage girls who get sucked into virtual reality worlds, heroines who transform their panties into weapons, or tentacle rape as an erotic activity. Anime may be fantastical and absurd, but rarely is it completely irrational; it is usually based on recognizable science fiction or fantasy conceits, given a Japanese flavor which makes them seem exotic to Westerners. Cat Soup follows, instead, the dream logic of the Surrealists, although as an OVA shelved alongside “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Girl: Real Bout High School,” it was destined to be seen by an audience of otaku. The cute cartoon figures on the cover (which inevitably suggested the popular Hello Kitty brand) further steered the DVD into the hands of those looking for a pop culture high rather than to pop in some high culture. To this day, Cat Soup is known almost entirely in anime circles; the film does not have a single review from a mainstream critic on Rotten Tomatoes, for example. This is unfortunate, because Cat Soup is not even on the radar of the art film audience that would most appreciate it. Although the stories often start from ludicrous premises, anime is a heavily plot-based art form, and Cat Soup‘s plotlessness causes difficulty among those used to its narrative conventions. The (current) Wikipedia plot summary, for example, presents speculation and interpretation as hard facts, as if the film’s deliberate ambiguity were simple plot coding. IMDB reviewers insist the film is not really “random” but actually contains “deep meaning.” But although there is some (difficult) narrative structure to Cat Soup, the main body of the film is pure picaresque surrealism.

Cat Soup is understood through images and the interplay of its themes rather than by its (virtually nonexistent) logic. One of its key methods is its juxtaposition of its cute cat cartoon characters with the horrible situations the kitties find themselves in. The protagonists are not only children, they are children drawn as a child would see them. They are children suddenly faced with the reality of mortality, as the older of the two lies in bed running a deathly fever and the younger is faced with a potential drowning. This is a bitter fate for the young, and cruelty and violence is one of the major themes of the film. Seen through children’s eyes, however, the cruelty has no bite. The pair find themselves inexplicably stranded on an ark with a pig. When the pig brings them a basket of fishes to eat, the brother instead knocks the pig down, unzips its hide, and extracts a cut of ham. This does not bother the swine in the slightest; offered a slice, he gnaws on his own flesh together with the siblings and eats it with relish. Later, they beat the pig to death in a desert; as he is dying he gnaws off the brothers arm. It detaches like a doll’s limb; there is pink blood, but it doesn’t flow, merely bubbles at the site of the wound. A woman in a nearby shack stitches it back on. Horrible dismemberment is a constant feature of this cartoon universe, but there is no pain.  At a carnival, an old bearded performer (God) carves up a woman with a chainsaw, covers the audience in blood, then sends her body into a whirlwind and reassembles her whole and unharmed. Gore is a neutral feature of this world; bodies are assembled and disassembled at will.

Within the boundaries of the film—although not, perhaps, outside it, as the ending may suggest—death has no sting. That does not stop the protagonists from resisting it; but when the boy seizes half of his sister’s soul from the krishna-like death spirit who is walking her to the afterlife, he shrugs and offers a pictogram of advice, as if life, death or zombiehood is a matter of no great importance in the grand scheme of things. The sister, with the big blinking eyes of a coma victim, is left in a state halfway between life and death, but this seems not to bother her family, who send her and her brother out for bean curd the minute she recovers a semblance of life. It is not so much as if death is defied by the denizens of Cat Soup as that its reality is not completely recognized. Like their conveniently pre-butchered porcine pal, we watch a fish sliced up by samurai to make living sushi; undeterred, the filleted animal dives off the boat and swims through an increasingly psychedelic ocean.

At the end of the film, death is even literally reversed, as God causes time to run backwards for a while. We see a man lying in a pool of blood who flips backwards and bounces off the car that struck him, now unharmed. Mushroom clouds undecay back into whole atoms. Mammals revert into fish and crawl into the sea. Does God do this, a la Superman in the 1978 film, in order to save our dying heroine? No; it appears that, as he is slicing a planet in half for lunch, one hemisphere gets away from him and rolls into the gears of time, causing them to stick. God then accelerates time to shake his stuck meal free, but when he fails to grab it as it circles around he puts the mechanism in reverse until he can free it. The God of Cat Soup is nearly all-powerful, but subject to accident. His activities have tremendous effects on poor humans (and cats), but he is not concerned with them; he is concerned with his own purposes, which in this case is filling his own belly. Previously, we saw him as the featured act at the carnival, so he is not above doing a few tricks for applause; but later, he causes a worldwide drought (after a bird who had swallowed the sky flooded the planet—long story) by holding the Earth in the palm of his hand while the globe’s oceans run down his wrist. The brother and sister’s struggle against death appears beneath God’s notice, who has his own life to lead. Indeed, the last time we see God, his is looking down at our own planet on a plate, knife and fork laid out for dinner. Life is cruel, God is indifferent, and this all looks very strange and absurd indeed when viewed through the eyes of a dying kitten.

A common interpretation of Cat Soup‘s narrative is that the brother drowns in the bathtub at the beginning of the film, and that the entire story is his dying hallucination. Since we clearly see the boy pulled out of the bathtub, only the very last image provides much textual support for this position (Satō’s commentary says that it is a possibility, but, unless he is being coy, he suggests that he himself is agnostic on the issue). I think this deathbed hallucination interpretation is comforting to many people because it provides an explanation (or even an excuse) for the surreal imagery that follows. Some, seeking to combat criticisms that the work is “random” (which is kids today’s way of saying it’s “weird for weirdness’ sake“), might even go so far as to suggest that this interpretation helps imbue the work with “meaning,” as if the “random” death imagery that follows would be meaningless if not placed inside a clearly defined story context. So many reviewers fretted about not being able to discern Cat Soup‘s meaning; but I have a problem with such a juvenile definition of “meaning.” A work of art is an object created by human endeavor, and every facet of it is created by deliberate choice of the artist (even if that choice is to leave some parameters up to chance). Every work of art, therefore, automatically contains meaning. Surreal art suggests a chaotic and absurd order that, arguably, is closer to reality than the overly-structured, narrowly-defined symbolic messages that non-artists often understand as constituting “meaning.” Cat Soup may be many things, but it’s not didactic; it does not supply a simple moral, or position itself as a strict point-by-point religious allegory about the afterlife. It’s far too random for that, and far too respectful towards the mystery of death. Its subjects may be childlike, but its meaning isn’t.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere in between random acidic imagery, a surreal-mystical exploration of life and death, and Dali mixed with Bill Plympton. A must-see at least once for fans of the bizarre.”–Zev Toledano, The Wiorldwide Celluloid Massacre (DVD)

“…one big 30-minute trippy dream.”–Nix, Beyond Hollywood (DVD)

Cat Soup is not about plot and character, but imagery and experiences…  as far removed from traditional anime conceits as Brakhage’s Dog Star Man was from a Sylvester Stallone action vehicle.”–Serdar Yegulalp, Genji Press (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Cat Soup – A one page entry at producer J.C. Staff’s site (in Japanese)

IMDB LINK: Cat Soup (2001)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Cat Soup (OAV) – The film’s listing on Anime News Network, with basic information and more links (many of which are now broken)

Cat Soup (Anime) – TV Tropes has an entry dedicated to Cat Soup

DVD INFO: The Software Sculptures DVD (buy) is not in print anymore and can command high prices, but is worth tracking down for fans. (This author lucked into a DVD priced less than $10 at Goodwill). The feature is only 30 minutes, but it contains enlightening  commentary by director Tatsuo Satō, along with “How to Make Cat Soup,” an interview featurette that is as long as the main event. The disc also contains the original trailer, an art gallery, and trailers for other anime DVDs.

Limited edition copies were sold in “Liquid Art” casing (buy), with a red fluid and two tiny kitties floating around in front of the cover art, making the DVD packaging itself a work of art.

(This movie was nominated for review by many readers, the very first of whom was “barryconvex,” who sumarized it as “Featuring two cats, god and a lot of weird and disturbing events.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “199. CAT SOUP (2001)”

  1. I have heard a theory that this film is actually devoted to the memory of the creator, Nekojiru, and the film itself is a metaphor for the fate of the original Nekojiru comics and the suicide of their author (one of the characters, Nyatta, was actually a bit of a self-insert for her, right down to the prickly personality). The actual was quite a character – she apparently had Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works played at her funeral as stated in her will!

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