My Review of Cat Soup!

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. It’s a tale of two kitties, and i’m not talking about that abysmal Garfield sequel. Nyako and Nyatta are two sibling kittens living in a quaint little house with their parents, a doting homemaker mommy cat and a lazy, slovenly daddy cat. One day, while the older sister Nyako is fatally ill, her little brother Nyatta accidentily drowns while playing in the bathtub. Death doesn’t come for him, however, as a Japanese grim reaper comes for his sister, who passed moments before him. Taking advantage of this unique opportunity, Nyatta pursues the two, finds them under a series of street lamps, and attempts to wrestle his older sister’s soul away from the deity. Their struggle unfortunately results in her soul being torn in half, with Nyatta and the reaper each getting away with an incomplete soul. Nyatta is revived by his father, at which point he returns the soul he recovered to the body it once inhabited.

His sister comes back to life, but is she truly alive? With only half of her soul intact, she may have resumed breathing, but there’s no light in her eyes, and she’s basically been left in a sort of waking coma. She can eat and drink for herself, providing that you put food and water in her mouth, but she shows no sign of independent thought or movement. Not satisfied with this half-brained husk of a sibling. Nyatta embarks on a journey to bring her back to the way she was. He starts off by visiting a circus that allegedly specializes in creating spectacular miracles, under the hope that she can be revived there, but his hopes are dashed when the two of them are swept up in an odyssey of oddities, becoming sojourners of a strange, surreal space. They’ll battle to survive as they break through the very boundaries of reality, contending against drought, starvation, an unstable time frame, and the cruel whims of God himself, all while finding the answer to one simple, albeit haunting, question: How far would you go for the sake of your family?

If there’s one thing that stands out about JC Staff, it’s that they don’t really seem to have a distinctive style. If I were to look at Excel Saga next to Toradora, or Karin next to Kill Me Baby, or even Index next to Ookamisan, I would never guess they were animated and produced by the exact same company. The majority of their work looks nothing alike, and this is nowhere as pronounced as it is with Cat Soup. JC Staff uses a variety of styles in this project, from fluidly animated traditional style to the kind of broken, frameless style that they’ve used in other anime to give the illusion of frenetic motion to what I can only describe as stop-motion animation of rough, graphic chalk drawings. Some of those styles probably sound cheap to you, but oh no, they spared to expense on this OVA, even though they’re animating what’s basically the story of a world of anthropomorphic animals, which nobody really needs to see in fluid motion. I mean, if you’ve seen the anime this one is based on, it wasn’t exactly the most lavish production.

And these styles aren’t being used randomly, either, there’s a point to them throughout the story. We start out with traditional animation, but something amazing happens with it… Instead of keeping to a two dimensional perspective, JC Staff managed to pull off a three dimensional perspective without using a lick of CGI, employing an inventive use of shading, angles, and the occasional wide-angle lens. This style is largely on display when the cats themselves are on screen, rightfully painting their material as the “Real world” material, or as real as anthropomorphic animals can be. That’s not to say there’s no CG, as I’m pretty sure it shows up for certain shots involving water and gears, and a giant creature summoned during the carnival, but it’s used sparingly, and never as a crutch, instead appearing so that film can take advantage of it’s clash with 2D aesthetic. The broken style comes into play when actual humans are on screen, giving an other-worldly look to what should seem the most familiar to us. It’s also used on a figure that I’m going to presumptively call God, who shows up later on. Still, these people are somewhat cartoony, and to take the disparity between reality and fantasy even further, the chalky aesthetic is used in moments involving photorealistic people.

There’s barely any music, with the first track only appearing around 12 minutes in, and with the exception of the last two tracks used, none of it is really worth mentioning, as what’s left is repetitive and generic sounding. They work well in context, and provide decent background music for certain scenes, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really want to listen to independently. There is some very real beauty to the last two tracks, however, as a certain spoiler one does sound kind of heartwarming, and the ending tune sounds like an old music box being played with by a child. The opening tune which I didn’t lump in with the others, is your typical anime walking music, but with an old timey echo and a hypnotic underlay of footsteps and everyday noises making it into the likes of something you’ll swear you’ve never heard before. Speaking of everyday noises, while there’s little to no music throughout almost half of it, the sound design is amazing, with everything from the footsteps to chirping crickets to underwater sound distortion making it sound like you’re really there with the characters. There’s almost no dialogue, save for some text balloons accompanied by some meep-meep-meeping, so lets just move on.

I wasn’t planning to write this review… It came about as a result of another idea that popped into my head, that it might be fun to write down my top ten series-based OVAs. This idea led to a second idea, which was “Hey, instead of just taking up one slot in my schedule this winter, how about I write a full review of the number one spot, and make it two?” Well, I wound up backing off of my original number one, when I realized that I’d already reviewed Wolf’s Rain, and I couldn’t talk at length about the last four episodes without giving away major spoilers. A-doy. In comes number 2 to the rescue, and Oh God, it’s Cat Soup. I was simultaneously excited and terrified of the corner I’d backed myself into, because I genuinely love this little film, but I didn’t know if there’d be enough talking points that a guy who refuses to review FLCL could successfully articulate. Upon second watch, however, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. There’s a lot more here to unload then I thought.

First things first, if I’m going to talk about Nekojiru Sou, I need to talk briefly about the whole Nekojiru thing. Chiyomi Hashiguchi was a manga artist in the eighties and nineties who took the traditional image of the good luck cats… The things Meowth was based on? And sent them on adventures that spoke to Japanese youths at the time through a bleak, pragmatic lens that explored the cruelty of the world with a casual, childish approach. It’s basically like if Ayn Rand were to direct a story set in the Busy World of Richard Scarry. Yes, you’ve got anthropomorphic animals talking in human languages and acting like people, but they also hunt and eat each other, both friend and foe. She committed suicide at the age of 31, and while her reasoning isn’t exactly known, there’s speculation that the success and commercialization of her work, combined with the creative exhaustion of having to fill more and more work orders may have overtaxed her already troubled mind. I mean, hell, her two main characters were just about to be adopted as safety mascots when she did it. Imagine how much that would have blown things up.

Likewise, the two animated adaptations of her work were released posthumously. I haven’t read any of her original work, I’m only vaguely aware that her first comic involved a baby cat being killed and turned into soup after a botched neutering was performed to keep it quiet, but I am aware that the two releases represented different sides of her work. The series, Cat Soup Theater, or “Nekojiru Gekijou,” was based on her more common work, the Snoopy-like tales of Nyatta and Nyako. One of the most famous moments from this series involves the older girl’s friend, a pig, being brutally murdered and turned into pork cutlets by her father, who gives just as little of a shit as she does about the fact that he’s scared to die and having the only normal reaction to this deed. He’s ultimately fed to the family, as well as to his clueless little brother, all while his parents… Ahem, ‘pork,’ in the background. This clip was featured in AMV Hell 5 along with a song about how delicious pork is, because AMV Hell 5 wasn’t very good. Sorry, it’s true.

The problem with having such a horrific event take place so early in the production is that there’s really nowhere else to go from there. You can’t very well bank on the shock value of people dying when a slide throws them into a brick wall or a little Tanuki getting shot in the head by Daddy cat when you’ve already gone into such dark territory, and if I’m being perfectly honest, the series wasn’t very good. Maybe it’s because I’m not the specific Japanese audience it was targeting at the time, and yeah, I can see things like this being more entertaining in comic form, but after such a huge bump early on, the rest of the show just felt kinda dull to me. Luckily, it wouldn’t be the only adaptation of Chiyomi Hashiguchi’s work, as we’d soon get Nekojiru Sou, which translates to Cat Soup Grass… Possibly a nod to the other side of her material that it would be representing. Yeah, some of her work was surreal and druggy enough to make Alice in Wonderland’s book look like the Disney version. The cartoon version, not the “Oh-ho-ho, look at silly Johnny Depp gasping whimsically in facepaint” version.

The first time you watch Cat Soup, named in English releases after the creator, it may feel like little more than random weirdness. Even the opening segment is easy to get lost in, as the characters say nothing, and the OVA does little to nothing to explain to the viewer what’s going on. For some people, it takes a plot synopsis online just to figure out that Nyatta drowned just long enough to save Nyako from dying of her illness, and that’s with the giant foreshadowing clue of Nyatta playing in the bath with a truck, which would sink, instead of a floaty boat. Cat Soup relies on it’s viewers to use their brains to interpret and figure out what they’re watching, spoon-feeding you so little that even the little bit of thought bubble dialogue we’re given seems out of character for it. It’s easy to write it off as a couple of kitties eating some badly dated magic mushrooms and experiencing all of the other-worldly weirdness through the lens of their drug-addled eyes, and I’m sure on some level this assumption would be accurate to the comics, but to do so would be seriously reductive of the material.

It took me multiple views to connect as many dots as I have, but Cat Soup isn’t random by any means. There are a few sequences I can’t place any significant meaning to, like a fish escaping from a horde of sword swinging samurai, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no meaning that can be found. For the most part, at least as far as I’ve observed, this thirty minute OVA is packed with complex metaphors that act as an extension of what Hasiguchi’s original point was, as it carries two very important and interwoven themes with them. The first theme is the bleak nature of existence. The circle of life isn’t always life affirming like it is in the Lion King. The world is cruel, and life itself is harsh by it’s very own nature. Everything that’s born will inevitably die, and to believe that your brief existence holds any significance to a grand plan or that you’ll leave a major impact merely by existing is a childish illusion. Life continues in a cycle, nobody can escape from it, and even those who consider themselves prey are, in some way, predatory. Even if you don’t eat living things, you still use them, and often without thanks as they die for you.

The other theme, and this may come as a surprise to anyone who can’t get past the casual cruelty of Hasiguchi’s work, is the importance of family. The world is full of violence, people and animals die in massive numbers every day, history is full of people committing horrifying acts on one another, but it pays to focus your attention on those closest to you… To treasure and cherish your family and loved ones, because in the end, their lives mean the most to you, and their deaths are the ones you should go to the ends of the earth to prevent. According to Cat Soup, as is shown constantly throughout the film but most noticeably through a callback to the series’ disposal of pig characters, there’s nothing wrong with killing and taking advantage of others for the sake of your older sister, because in the end, she’s what should matter to you. It doesn’t even matter if you’re defying God… God is a fickle being who cares more about his next meal than the lives of people who are just going to be born to die anyway.

I could go on and on with a point-by-point analysis of what everything in this OVA means… Or at least I could try to overcome the futility of doing so… But in the end, you’ve got to experience it for yourself. I haven’t figured everything out yet, but I still have faith that everything in this anime means something, however small, and not a second of screen time was wasted. I could explain the water-elephant, the tall mosquito figures, the stitches on the fat dude’s head, even the ending, but… No, I probably should say something about the ending, because that’s one of the most confusing parts of the show. I’m only ever going to do this once, because I swore I’d never recommend this dude’s work to anybody, but it’s the only way to help you out without spoiling anything. After watching Cat Soup, if you’re confused about the final segment, watch the movie Dogma. I’m not saying it’s a good movie, in fact I think Kevin smith is severely over-rated, but some parts of the movie will go a long way in explaining the end of this one.

Cat Soup is available from… Well, nobody, really. It was released on two different DVD sets by Central Park Media, one in a normal case and a limited edition in a bloodier Liquid Art case, both versions now out of print. Nekojiru’s written works have not been released stateside, nor has the series the OVA was based on, but they can be imported from Japan. If you’re looking to read more on Chiyomi Hashiguchi, you can find an essay online by Thom Bailey at http://www.hz-journal.org/n5/bailey.html.

I don’t think I’m overselling Cat Soup when I call it a surrealist masterpiece. It can be viewed from either the perspective of those looking to find meaning in it as well as by those who are just looking for some weird shit to look at, either to get stoned through or to confuse their friends with, and it works perfectly either way. I don’t entirely agree with everything it says, being that I am Christian myself, but I still find it’s representation of a depressed individual’s outlook on life to be fascinating down to it’s core. It’s beautiful to look at, rich with introspection, and somehow manages to have a solid heart behind all of it’s cruel observations. To call it a major improvement over the preceding series would be like calling the Mona Lisa a major improvement over your tween cousin’s selfies. If I can find any flaw in it, it would be that the music was a bit lacking, but it was obviously never intending to have a huge soundtrack, and the brilliant sound design more than makes up for it. I can watch it multiple times a week without getting sick of it, and you should too. I give Cat Soup a 10/10.

 

In Loving Memory of Shadow;  February 2001 – March 2017

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