Remember Cat Soup? No? Well, I remember! So it’s time to dig up this mostly forgotten anime movie from almost 20 years ago and give it an in-depth look!
Cat Soup, also known as Nekojiru Sou, is a movie inspired by the many Nekojiru manga out there. These are about a bunch of cats who are, to be quite frank, just a bunch of pricks doing bad stuff. These aren’t good cats but bullyish, nasty cats terrorizing others for the sake of it. I admittedly haven’t read any of the manga stories but I do have seen the short anime adaptation Nekojiru Gekijou Jirujiru Original. Which isn’t very good. Nasty cats do nasty things and oftentimes, there isn’t a moral to the story. The adventures of these characters are mean-spirited and vile. But I suspect that is the point.
This is not an article about standard Nekojiru however, as here we are with Cat Soup, a commemoration project of sorts, produced in 2001 by J.C. STAFF at the hands of director Tatsuo Sato. Tatsuo Sato is not the most noteworthy name on this project as you are about to find out, however, and I have seen all of Madan no Ou to Vanadis and a few episodes of Mouretsu Pirates and found none of these to be particularly worthwhile. He also wrote Argevollen of which I have seen a bit but that primarily made me fall asleep. I am only going in great detail here because he also has Shigofumi under his directing belt and now that was a genuinely good, daring anime with all the directional prowess one could hope for. It is a complete and utter mystery to me why none of his other works even show a fraction of that talent or style but maybe it’s just like with the director of Boogiepop Phantom who then went on to create… well, you see my point?
Cat Soup isn’t just Tatsuo Satou’s work however, the bigger name attributed to it is that of Masaaki Yuasa, who was in charge of storyboarding. I suppose I don’t need to introduce the man behind Ping Pong, Devilman Crybaby, Kemonozume, The Tatami Galaxy and Kaiba anymore, do I? Long story short, he’s prolific with adaptations, reimaginations as well as originals and widely acclaimed for a very good reason. All I can tell you is that he was involved with Cat Soup but I am not one to make speculative claims on how Cat Soup is his work and not Satou’s based on the notion of him being a better director; and it all around is really hard for me to figure out who did what and regardless of tamerlane’s claims from back in the days that Satou stated he let Yuasa handle everything, I have dutifully looked through various interviews and could find no such statement. Well, that puts me in a bind and I like to decide in these cases that I am not letting guesswork on contributions of individuals involved get the better of me to craft some sort of narrative. ANN says both Satou and Yuasa were in charge of the scenario so I’ll just leave it at that.
The last bit of auteur influence I’d like to dedicate a paragraph to (something I usually don’t do) is that of the original author, Nekojiru herself, who goes by the real name of Chiyomi Hashiguchi. Not much is known about Nekojiru although it does make one wonder what kind of person she was to write such stories and what does leave its biggest mark is that she died by committing suicide. I believe this tiny bit of information very much lays the groundwork to comprehending Cat Soup as I believe it’s impossible to separate this one movie from the original author as I suspect its creators have made it with her specifically in mind. So, what does Cat Soup have to say then? Let’s find out!
What is Cat Soup’s meaning?
This is where I’m delving into spoiler territory and most of you ought to stop reading unless you have a good reason to do so. And you better have one. As Cat Soup happens to be short and a good, atmospheric experience with strong artistic merits, you best watch it yourself first. This post is more of a recap to give some clarity rather than a review anyway.
Cat Soup essentially depicts the fate of two siblings. One is the older sister Nyako and one is the younger brother Nyatta. Nyako presumably pseudo-dies from a fever and Nyatta may or may not have drowned in the meanwhile. It would certainly explain why his parents don’t even acknowledge his presence after the fact. As Nyatta is in a state of some sort of coma, he sees his sister being dragged away by what one can only assume to be something akin to the grim reaper. In a rather comical fashion, the two of them fight over Nyako’s soul and Nyatta only manages to retrieve a part of it. Upon being discovered by his father in the bathtub, Nyatta finally awakes from his strange dream but it is soon found out by the family that Nyako has passed away in the meanwhile. Nyatta then however puts part of his sister’s soul into her body and she regains consciousness. Due to part of her soul missing, however, she is now in a state of barely having any will of her own. Unsatisfied with this, Nyatta sets out with Nyako and this is how their little adventure to get back what is rightfully theirs and a tale of how little life and death mean in the face of the absurdity of being toyed with truly mean.
I’ve already mentioned that Cat Soup is cynical, evil and whatnot but let me elaborate on that. Beyond the obvious (cat pricks), there’s also a fair share of symbolism and meaning to be found within the work (even if Satou partly likes to claim otherwise), the leitmotif of the run being that that everything is futile after all and that little do life and death in Cat Soup mean anything. In fact, if anything, Cat Soup hints at the two of them just so happening with no fate, nothing extraordinary and no special meaning attached to them whatsoever. There’s a strong nihilistic nuance to be found and, ultimately, futility, which is what this analysis is about. But let me just point out all the moments I’m aware of.
– As Nyatta makes out to save his sister from death itself dragging her away, he just so happens to encounter a trio of elderly women blabbering as if no morning was to come. This is comically exaggerated by the fact that their voices are artificially sped up and distorted. You know the type, the pseudo-concerned neighborhood ladies with the ill rumors in anime (Paranoia Agent had a very good episode on this), never up to anything good or productive, except in this case, there are plugs attached to them. Nyatta pulls one of those plugs, with air evading until there’s nothing left inside and the cat lady shrinks, her skin now laying on the ground as if a balloon had been evaporated. The analogy here is clear: Old women who badmouth others rather than striving for achievements on their own are completely empty, substanceless inside. The other two watch this, their talk comes to a halt for a moment and yet, just a few seconds later, they continue rattling on. Their pointless chatter is more important to them than someone close losing their life.
– The circus performance. This is right at the beginning and where the theme of life and death carrying little weight or meaning is the most obvious: God enters the stage, kills a woman. Uses magic. Her several body parts are now spectacularly flying around as part of the act until he puts them all together and she is back among the living, safe and sound. Whereas life and death are usually considered as sacred and the be-all-end-all, it just takes for him to snip his fingers to play with the very concept of it. And he just so does it for a circus performance, to demonstrate his power, for shits and giggles. At the end of the day, life is just one silly circus show.
– Still at the circus, creation is now a topic that is touched upon. Someone tells God what to create, he obliges. A chair, a golden elephant, you name it. Once again, all of these objects and living beings are created for the fun of it without greater meaning for the process of creation. It’s the complete opposite of common sense wherein creation is considered as something sacred, completely mystified and glorified through attaching implications of meaning to it.
– Because some guys messed up at the circus performance, the entire world ends up being flooded (by far not the only occassion masses of water appear in this story and probably not without reason, considering Nyatta’s near death experience with drowning), with the two protagonists now finding themselves on a boat. I suppose this is an arc noah reference, with even the franchise pig Butaro all of the sudden being around, maybe a representation of all the animals they got onto the arc?
– The fish. Good grief, the fish. That’s just a way too good example. See, they end up catching a fish. Needless to say, the fish prefers living over dying and tries to make a run for it. Suddenly, a scene unfolds wherein its flesh is sliced apart by countless of samurai, a metaphor for the cat doing this with his knife. Nonetheless, the fish manages to escape, only barely intact, swimming through the sheer endless ocean as cathartic music accompanies it on its journey as suddenly… it ends up being washed ashore, dead. A cat finds it, pokes out its eyeball and eats it. The fish’s best attempt meant absolutely nothing as it succumbs to a cynical outcome it had no way of having any influence on. Really, it’s a sign of what is yet to come.
– Butaro in the meantime gets to suffer at the hand of the cats, serving as their main source of nutrition as they comically remove slices of his body to eat (and he joins them in an act of self-cannibalization) and they then abuse him as a slave for transportation until he finally collapses and they beat him to a pulp. You’d think these cats would empathize but no, they don’t.
– They encounter a doctor in need of having their wounds treated yet the doctor is one to play with composing corpses, arbitrarily tying body parts of different people together as a pasttime obsession, heeding an individual’s life absolutely no respect. Once again, the sanctity of life couldn’t matter less.
– As they are about to starve, the two of them come upon a man of goodwill, treating them to all the sorts of pleasantries food could possibly offer in generally quite some gruesome manners. He ends up serving a flapping bird tied to a table but not without him drenching it in oil before making it fly through a candle’s fire to roast it alive. And so he keeps on feeding our protagonists in best Hansel and Gretel-esque manner (including house made of sweets, drenched in chocolate sirup for them to eat) until he’s willing to boil them. What is striking here is that he wasn’t even killing the birds out of need but just for pleasure because I assure you, if you wanted a roasted bird, there are several ways of acquiring one without torturing the poor thing, yet the story is focused on robbing life and death off any meaning or dignity even further.
– In the meantime, we are back to God’s shenanigans, as he just so happens to drop a mountain-esque half of a planet that he was about to eat into the wheels of time by accident. To get his dinner back, he decides to spin those back and forth. This has rather dark, comedic consequences as we get to see several people “undying” as time temporarily rewinds for a moment. A woman about to jump in front of a car, countless people falling to their deaths suddenly floating back into the sky again and the list relentlessly goes on. Natural disasters, fatal accidents, assassinations all are casually rewound for the time being just because God messed up at his dinner table. That’s yet another striking moment of comically making light of life and death. And when all is said and done, we just so happen to get a look at his next plate: It’s planet earth being the follow-up dinner. I guess that is what we amount to.
– Our cats have made their way back safe and sound; Nyako’s soul has been restored by Nyatta’s endeavors, the two of them have returned to their home and their happy family life seems to be back in place as all are reuinted. Except the peaceful status quo does not last long: There’s still planet earth on a plate to be devoured. And just as Nyatta temporarily leaves for the toilet stall, we can see the parents disappear as if a television was turned off. Then the TV turns off. Then, with another zip, so does the sister. And, lastly, the entire world until nothing but static noise is left. It looks like God has finally finished his meal and the chapter of planet earth has been concluded alongside the fate of Nyatta and his family. If this isn’t the strongest moment of futility where all the previous efforts turn out to have gone to waste, then I don’t know what is.
Cat Soup isn’t very straightforward I’d say and does leave a thing or two to interpretation. One might even argue that Nyatta never survived his experience in the bathtub. Maybe the entire thing was just a last hallucination of his? It would explain the sudden bizarreness and surrealism in a story that was entirely grounded in its first few minutes. The recurrence of water as a major element also lends the thought some credibility: There’s the entire world being flooded as a result of an accident, Nyatta and Nyako encounter water elephant in the desert, the story of the fish adds up to it, both main characters almost are boiled to death, the tear of a woman about to commit suicide turns solified, the waves of the red sea as time is frozen leave quite the impression as well and they return to their home by boat once again after finally recollecting Nyako’s soul. Water has been almost omnipresent throughout the entire unfolding of events and it’s hard to fob it off merely as a “why not” thing. There’s good reason to believe that the entire adventure was just one (wish-fulfillment) dream the protagonist’s mind played on him in the last moments of drowning before death got the worse of him. There’s some symbolism to the TV zipping and everything disappearing that way too: It’s a prime example of the philosophy that the world ends with you.
At the end of the day, it might not matter much: Nyatta’s attempts and struggles are fruitless and it all ends with the worst possible scenario. Nyako’s and Nyatta’s trip was futile as was all else. Maybe all of us are just dancing in someone else’s palm, unaware of their existence as terrible things happen on a whim because why wouldn’t they.
For some reason, Cat Soup feels to me like the kind of story authors of extravagant pieces that try to capture the essence of something vague like Girls’ Last Tour or someone like Dowman Sayman would like. Although that is just a random thought popping up in my mind.
Perhaps Cat Soup has no one true specific statement to make, maybe it’s a “it is whatever you want it to be” piece of work but I don’t like the thought of that. Maybe it’s a mood piece trying to comprehend the essence of Nekojiru the work and Nekojiru the author, grasping in the dark for something vague, a notion of sorts. Or maybe it’s a direct slap in the face, a full-blown piece about nihilism. One might ponder about what Nekojiru would have thought of it.
Is there a positive spin to this dark tale? Ultimately, I don’t know but I would like to think so. That is why I think the credits are the most important part of the movie – a short recording of a blissful moment in the life of a happy family as we never got to see it and will never get to see it, something now lost. Replayed over and over again to the tunes of a music box. So maybe Cat Soup is a cautionary tale about the things important to us and how it’s in our best interest to take good care of them with the little control we have. Life is absurd and just a fleeting moment so we need to make sure every second counts and we cherish it the most.
With that said, whatever to make of the final message, Cat Soup was a satisfying, unique watch with much more than what meets the eye and I would recommend it to everyone who has half an hour and a few brain cells to spare.
Anyway, these are my words on Cat Soup. It’d be nice if some of you got something out of them.
I also hope you all too will make the most of your lives.