Anime is booming, but that doesn't mean we're back to reliving the glory days of yonder. Though more people than ever are showing an interest in Japanese animation, what's currently lacking are unique projects that dare to be different. Take for example Tatsuo Sato's Cat Soup [Nekojiru-sô], a surreal short that made quite a name for itself since it was launched over two decades ago. It's a film I've always held in high regard, but it's also been a long time since I last watched it. As I was looking for something short(er) with a trusted level of quality, I figured this was the ideal moment to give it another spin.
The early 00s were a superb time for anime. Not only were producers willing to take risks, but directors and animators were also eager to take up the gauntlet and deliver something unique. This yielded some amazing TV series and feature-length films, away from all the commercial buzz, shorts were also thriving. Especially with the advent of computer animation (think Makoto Shinkai), the sky was the limit for anyone with a bright and original idea (and the proper skillset). It's no surprise then that Cat Soup originated in this era, as it isn't the type of film that wouldn't have otherwise seen the light of day.
While clearly part of the anime world, the art style and its eagerness to venture down a more surreal route make Cat Soup a close relative to European animation. While that doesn't necessarily go over well with more traditional anime fans, it definitely made it easier to get picked up by cinephile crowds and establish its name that way. The film certainly sports an interesting blend of styles, a marriage of cultures you don't see that often, and it might be interesting to see more directors have a go at it. At the same time, it's exactly this unique combo that allows the film to stand out.
The plot is both very simple and extremely confusing. Nyatto (a young cat) witnesses how her sister's soul is stolen. She confronts the culprit and manages to pry half a soul from his hands. Returning home her sister is still alive, but she isn't very responsive with only part of a soul left to live on. The two go on a journey together, hoping they can regain the missing part of Nyatto's sister. So far so good, but the people/animals they meet and the situations they find themselves in are something else entirely. It's not completely random, with enough symbolism scattered throughout, but somehow it never quite connects to form a logical whole.
The art style isn't too complex, but it sports a nice mix of dark and cute, and even though none of it is very flashy, it's refreshing that Sato cycles through a couple of different style variations. It's details like this that help to keep the film fresh and exciting. The animation itself is a clear step up from the norm, which maybe isn't all that surprising when you know Masaaki Yuasa was involved in the project. His unique touch brings extra life to the characters and their adventures. Add some sparse computer effects (none too obvious and always functional) and you have a very distinct-looking anime. It's not up there with the likes of Studio 4°C, and it's not the main thing you'll remember afterward, but it is without a doubt a crucial part of the film's success.
The soundtrack is quite minimalistic and keeps a low profile, but still manages to be pretty varied. There are low hums and pure soundscapes, there is more melodic ambient background music, and there are two or three more typical musical accompaniments. The music never takes center stage and focuses more on setting a general mood, but it does that remarkably well and it plays its part in grounding the surreal elements just that little more, so they never feel completely random. As for the dub, the film is completely silent, meaning you don't need to worry about grabbing the wrong one. There are a few text bubbles here and there, other than that it's all visual storytelling.
Even though there is no dialogue (the text bubbles don't add anything of real significance) and the film quickly ventures into surreal territory, it's never too confusing or difficult to follow. The goal of the story is clear, which leaves a rather off-kilter road movie with some very peculiar encounters in a wondrous, trippy universe. I'm sure you could dig for extra meaning and depth, there's enough symbolism and potential for personal interpretation here to spend the remainder of the day discussing, but the film works just as well as a fantastical and slightly bewildering experience, which is the take I prefer.
Cat Soup is the kind of animation that could speak to both anime and arthouse enthusiasts alike, though I believe it's enough to appreciate films that venture off the beaten path to get the film. It's certainly not the most prestigious project, but with limited means, Sato managed to create something special and distinct. The detailed animation and moody score are a big plus, but it's the surreal adventure, swift pacing, and unbridled creativity that make this film such a memorable experience. A veritable cult classic that deserves all the love it can get.