A key concept in Buddhist thought is the impermanence of all things: today’s meal was yesterday’s cow, and will become tomorrow’s waste product. If everything changes form and passes away, then maybe the whole idea of things having form in the first place is delusion. Maybe this is not the right way to start talking about Cat Soup, an animated film where cats grow on trees and a hog eats part of his own butchered carcass, but I think it’s in the right spirit.
You’ve probably guessed by now that Cat Soup is not about plot and character, but imagery and experiences. That’s perfectly fine: some of the best movies are not about a story at all, just an experience. Koyaanisqatsi, The Phantom of Liberty, and most of 2001 come to mind. I’m also reminded of the Hubley animation productions like The Cosmic Eye, or even Stan Brakhage’s visionary filmmaking, which were about form and motion and color more than narrative. Despite being an animated production with a cast of cute animals, Cat Soup is definitely not a “kid’s movie” — it’s more in line with European productions like Allegro non troppo.
There is, come to think of it, a sort of a story. Two cats, a brother and sister, live with their mother and father — until the night the Grim Reaper (looking like a deity from a Vedic scripture) comes calling. A tug-of-war ensues, and while the boy cat is able to liberate the girl’s life force from Death’s clutches, her spirit has been sucked away, and she becomes inert and passive. The boy then takes her on a journey to find her soul, although the path they take is anything but straightforward, and I think that is precisely the idea.
Most of the movie consists of disjointed, picaresque scenes that at first don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. The two children visit the circus and witness a magic act that involves a woman being dissected into pieces, then magically reassembled. A flood strands them at sea in a tiny boat, with only the company of a pig whom they happily cannibalize (and who doesn’t seem all that upset when he’s offered a hunk of his own flesh to eat, either). An elephant made of water appears in the desert to bring them solace, if only briefly. God himself also makes an appearance, stopping time and turning a Hokusai-like crashing wave into a sliding playground for both of them.
Does the girl get her soul back? Do they find their way home? Yes, after a fashion, but by that time we’ve already had it made clear to us that the real reason for this journey is to expose us to a conceit, a state of mind, which is the one consistent thread that runs through each moment. Everything that comes into being passes away; everything that exists changes form. The idea of holding onto any one thing — whether it be this very moment, or your sister’s soul — is not a universal constant, but a human prejudice. Cat Soup finds endless inventive ways to show this, from the frankly vulgar and hilarious (as when they catch fish congregating near the side of the boat where they pee) to the poetic (as when baby cats blossom on a tree like flowers).
Cat Soup comes to us courtesy of director Tatsuo Sato and screenwriter Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa supplied key animation for the outstanding Samurai Champloo, the animated Hakkenden series, and the award-winning Mind Game (which is quickly earning status as an instant classic). Sato served as director on the Ninja Scroll TV series (as well as Nadesico and Stellvia), but Cat Soup is as far removed from traditional anime conceits as Brakhage’s Dog Star Man was from a Sylvester Stallone action vehicle. That, to me, makes it all the more interesting.