Experimental animation is always a hard subject to broach, not because there aren't plenty of features to see, but virtually no way to see them. Has anybody actually been able to see all five short animated features nominated for Oscars each year? Even when they're cute and flippant, they're darn hard to find; when they're experimental, they often wind up in the eternal black hole reserved for unreleased independent films. And that's the supposed cream of the crop!
Thankfully, Software Sculptors (a section of Central Park Media) has braved the market and released Cat Soup, one of the most bizarre shows you're likely to see. Ever. It may have been made in Japan, but it's thoroughly experimental animation that can make you crack a smile and scratch your head at the same time. While being woefully short on plot and devoid of deeper meaning besides what the viewer wants to assign it, the visual display surprised and enthralled this oft-jaded anime fan. Cat Soup is full of spectacularly vivid fever dreams--fever dreams worth waking up for.
The idea behind the program (which is best described that way instead of as a plot) is that Nyaako, Nyatta's sister, is very sick. One day, her soul is taken away, but Nyatta catches Death in the act and steals half of it back. With only half a soul, Nyaako is virtually a rag doll experiencing but not reacting to life, and their journey to retrieve the lost part of Nyaako's personhood (or cathood, if you like) consumes the rest of the film.
There's a half-hour worth of animation in this piece, so you'd think I'd describe more of it to you. To do so, however, would ruin this quirky piece of psychedelia. The show exists as a mystical journey, not as a coherent logic-driven film, and describing the journey would spoil the effect without possibly giving you even a taste of what you'll see.
At times, it's majestic and sumptuous. At other times, it's crass and grotesque and disturbing, like the darkest segments of Miyazaki's Spirited Away cranked up to 11. Its characters have stepped out of a children's storybook, but their adventures take place hovering around a 105-degree temperature. The events fall together most illogically at times, but Cat Soup has dream logic about it--everything works since we reach a resolution at the end, even though we travel from one place to the next with virtually no transitions or understanding why we've arrived where we are now. Framed with virtually no dialogue, instead guided by wonderful music and a spectacular 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, it's truly an adventure into uncharted territory.
There is one disappointment I have with Cat Soup, and it's simple. Cat Soup has no point. With so much creativity on display, does it need one? I'm not certain. Many movies are made without any purpose other than to entertain the audience so much that they leave the theatre in blissful ignorance that they gained nothing from the last two hours. And Cat Soup will definitely challenge and edify those brave enough to give it a fair shake, so it has value regardless. But on an emotional level, Cat Soup leaves me cold. The shows in the anime canon I return to again and again are the ones that draw out my deepest emotions. Cat Soup presents us with a fantastic world to discover, but it is oddly unaffecting.
Cat Soup is not a film that I would casually recommend to anime fans for the simple reason that many will despise it. The masses that think of anime fitting certain stereotypes will be completely taken aback by a show that looks and tastes like something completely different. Others will be off put by its disquieting combination of childlike characters and cruel, often graphic violence. The lack of a consistent narrative will push still more out the window. But those who come in prepared will experience a novel feast of artistry.
Cat Soup is the rare art film released in the United States, rarer still as that it's anime. It looks in the faces of its spiritual predecessors like Night on the Galactic Railroad, the "Clouds" segment of Robot Carnival, and Serial Experiments Lain and goes where they dared not trod, boldly pouncing into the land of the surreal. You've not seen this before--trust me. Expect to be disturbed instead of moved, and you'll find a reverie that Lewis Carroll would have found fascinating.
Cat Soup -- disturbing imagery, graphic violence, all involving children's characters -- A-