animefringe december 2003 / reviews

Cat Soup
Format: subtitled DVD / 34 min.
Production: Central Park Media / Tatsuo Sato / Masaaki Yuasa
Comments: Brilliantly impossible to explain.
Animefringe Reviews:
Cat Soup

The summary was simple enough. "When little kitten Nyaako's soul is stolen by Death, she and her brother Nyatta embark on a bizarre journey to get it back. In the surreal dreamscape of the Other Side, they encounter many fantastic characters and remarkable, often disturbing adventures."

That synopsis, a discounted pre-order price, and a little note marking this release as a "special limited edition" was all I needed to pick up the disc.

I'm not certain I could've summarized the story if I merely watched this piece of short animation. After listening to both the commentary track and the interview with Tatsuo Sato, the director, I know more about the motivation behind the creation of the piece, but I still can't really explain it. Neither can Mr. Sato, for that matter. In fact, that's one of the best qualities this animated film has to offer - it's whatever you think it is.

Inspired by - more than based upon - the manga of Nekojiro, a relatively well-known manga-ka in Japan, this anime is quite a job for the mind to process. On the box, it's described as "Hello Kitty on acid," though the director assures us during the interview that no member of the production staff was on any sort of mind-altering drug while making Cat Soup. I'm not sure how crazy this film would be if they had been on something.

The film has no true dialogue, though word balloons are used here and there. Characters make noise, and communication occurs, but there would be no point in crafting an English language track for this release, and so there is none. Signs are translated when they appear, but this is far more of a visual piece than a dialogue-driven feature. Sound effects are pivotal in the creation of the world of Nyaako and Nyatta. A very functional 5.1 channel soundtrack helps viewers enter this fairy tale of a nightmare reality. Oddly enough, the simple visual designs mesh well with the dynamic and technologically impressive aural presentation.

Cat Soup's simplistic character designs may fool people into thinking that it's an innocent, cute, animated short appropriate for children.

This is not for children.

For example, one scene features a man entertaining our feline stars for dinner. He has them sit at his dinner table, and then he shows them a small bird he has attached to the table by a string. Clearly agitated, the poor frightened animal begins flying around in circles, trying to escape. Amused, the dinner host watches the bird flap around a bit before dousing it with some unidentified liquid. A few more moments transpire before the man decides to hold a lit candle below the bird, engulfing the avian victim in flames.

The squawking of the flying, flaming bird is extremely unsettling. Even more disturbing, however, is the nonchalance of one cat and the outright enjoyment of the other at this gruesome display. Such cruelty is not uncommon in Cat Soup, and if you are offended or uninterested in such imagery, then it is not something for you.

Scene after scene, image after image, you might find yourself pondering the meaning of what you just saw. When an old man - apparently representing God - hacks apart a woman in a circus tent and then magically reassembles her in midair, it's not hard to guess that every little detail was added to convey some message, or some point. Why is God a circus performer, anyway?

The neat thing is, most of the images of the story were not purposely designed with a point in mind. In the commentary, I was expecting to hear explanations concerning some of the more unusual scenes. Mr. Sato did often say, "This is a scene that a lot of people ask me about." Yet, instead of explaining it, he'd admit that he really didn't have anything in mind when putting certain images in. With Cat Soup, we're not expected to find some obscure hidden meaning. Search all you want - the writers didn't put it there. Rather, it's our job to come up with our own meaning, our own message, if we want to make some sense of this.

Really, when you think about it, that's some hard work. Each twisted character can represent something different to each person that watches this short film. When asked why the filmmakers kept Cat Soup at only about a half-hour, Mr. Sato's answer is easy to agree with. If it were any longer, the person watching it might go insane. If someone is actively viewing Cat Soup, then his or her brain is most likely racing to interpret everything he or she is experiencing. To do so for more than the twenty-five minutes of actual runtime, not counting the credits, could be mentally taxing.

Potentially, one deciding factor that makes this either a very enjoyable film or a bunch of art-house crap would have to be how much a given viewer wants to work, mentally. I can envision some of my friends watching Cat Soup, saying "Well, that had no plot," and leaving it, disgusted. You don't have to be intellectually superior to enjoy this film, but it might take effort to appreciate Cat Soup, and it's up to the viewer to decide whether or not that effort is worth the trouble. It was, for me.

It is equally possible that some fans will enjoy the movie for its visually pleasing production values. If you can enjoy something without worrying about what its deeper meanings may be, then Cat Soup might be good for you, as well.

Incidentally, the version I purchased was the limited edition "liquid art pack" which featured a fluid-filled bag with our two protagonists floating around on the front cover of the keepcase. The case was clear, with artwork, chapter stops, and credits on the inside of the case. This edition has the same content as the standard release, however, which includes the feature, an optional audio commentary track, a lengthy interview with Mr. Sato, the original trailer, a slide show style art gallery, and CPM trailers. At a smaller MSRP than CPM's other titles, I'd say this title is something any animation enthusiast would enjoy viewing. Just remember - it's not for the faint of heart.