Reiki Tsuno's Mad Cats is the latest in a niche of films one could simply describe as "only in Japan". Films like these are immediately recognizable thanks to their outlandish premises and dry/absurdist comedy, sadly, the time isn't right for these types of comedies to flourish. Twenty years ago, a film like Mad Cats would've taken the world by storm, now one has to rely on the goodwill of boutique labels to get to these films. It's a good thing then that Third Window Films took it upon themselves to push this little masterpiece, as I'm surely yearning for more films like this.
Comedies are quite rare these days. In an attempt to keep the genre categorisation relevant, the goalposts have been moved and almost every lighter drama is now classified as one. There are some occasional survivors, even for those who do absurdist comedy (thinking of Quentin Dupieux here), but it seems mostly a privilege for established names only. Which is exactly why I was excited to see a film like Mad Cats being announced. It's hardly a sign of a sustainable revival, but hopefully having these films around will someday spark a new renaissance of the genre.
I will admit that Mad Cats is a relatively tricky film. Not only does it sport a very particular brand of comedy, but it's also extremely stingy with any kind of explanation. It's a film that can only be discovered by experiencing it in full. There's very little exposition, the setting is confusing and otherworldly and I don't think I understood all the universe's rules by the time the end credits started rolling. But that's okay, it's even part of the appeal, though many are sure to stumble by the lack of a clearer context. Then again, who expects a sane explanation for a film like this?
Taka is a slacker whose life is about to change when he receives a small package containing a cassette. It holds the voice of a woman, telling him his brother is kidnapped by a strange cat cult. The voice orders him to get his act together, go save his brother, and steal a small box in the process. Taka owes his brother and obliges, but even though he manages to locate his brother, he only succeeds in stealing the mystery box. This angers the cats and Taka becomes their target. Luckily, he gets help from a random bum he bumps into when trying to escape.
Films like these don't come with the biggest budget, but Tsuno did his best to compensate with smarts and creativity. The characters have very stylized looks, the camera work is notable and enhances the comedy, and the editing is often tailored to the score. It's clear the director had a precise vision for this film and whenever the money wasn't there to execute it, he and his crew found sly ways around the problems. Mad Cats is not the first film to pull this off, it's probably one of the defining characteristics of this type of film, but it's always nice to see creativity trump budget.
For a madcap comedy, the score isn't its most important asset, but a good score always adds value and it remains one of the cheapest ways to elevate a film. Props to Tsuno for going the extra mile. From the start, it's obvious that the music is going to play an active part in setting the mood and guiding the audience, and it does that with remarkable flair. Mad Cats sports a mysterious, moody selection of tracks that help to ground the film's strange little universe and the film wouldn't have been half as effective without it. Other directors should take note.
The performances are also on point, though most characters don't need to rise above their archetypes. Each character has a clearly defined role to play in the story, and there isn't much room for nuance or dubious morality. This isn't a bad thing, as the film is more than weird enough already, the characters in fact being one of its few easy crutches. The actors did a good job, they knew what was expected of them and they fulfilled the brief. There are no award-winning performances here, but that has more to do with the nature of awards than the energy of the actors.
Tsuno created a pretty intriguing universe, though he is quite sparse with explanations. The audience is supposed to piece most of it together themselves, and when some details do get explained, they don't necessarily make the film's internal logic any clearer. Apart from the glaringly obvious cat and 20th-century USA inspiration, the film remained puzzling until the very end. It's not something that will go over very well with everyone, but I quite dug this approach. Rather than feel the constant pressure to explain away a bunch of silliness, why not just use it as a way to add extra intrigue and comedy to your film?
Reiki Tsuno's first is an acquired taste, that much is certain. It's not a film that will win over the masses, but it is unique and the execution is well above average. If you're looking for something weird, original, and funny, fully dedicated to its genre and aiming to surprise from start to finish, look no further than Mad Cats. Tsuno immediately establishes himself as a director to look out for, and I for one can't wait to see what he comes up with next. Hopefully, this film will do well enough to ensure his future work won't be restricted to Japan, but at least we'll always have Mad Cats.