I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Adult Anime? Hey, Come Back, It's Not What You Think!

by Alex Schab
Jan. 28, 2013
Claiming that the average American's view of Japanese culture lies fixated somewhere between Pokémon and Hello Kitty is hardly unfair. As someone who grew up in America, I honestly believe that the only exposure most of us received was as children watching Americanized versions of shows like Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon. After we became adults, we rarely ever saw anime again. 

Our lack of knowledge on the subject often leads us to a very common conclusion: anime is for children. And why wouldn't we conclude that? When we import shows, we change them to suit our needs, and very often those needs are ratings driven by kids. That’s why the American version of Sailor Moon cuts out adult themes like homosexuality, and our Dragon Ball Z is so dumbed down that most usages of the word “death” or other similar words were eradicated.

Perhaps this is why, when faced with a thoroughly adult anime, English speaking critics, even those specializing in anime, feel they must address the issue of children. Some of the reviews of Tatsuo Sato's 2001 film Cat Soup, or "Nekojiru-So" as it's known in Japan, are perfect examples. “Cat Soup's simplistic character designs may fool people into thinking that it's an innocent, cute, animated short appropriate for children. This is not for children,” says Anime Fringe's Patrick King. Meanwhile,T.H.E.M. Anime Reviews's Jed Stevens mentions in a section of his review marked “Recommended Audience” that the film “Contains some disturbing images, if little actual violence. While children would enjoy the graphics, any kid who grows up watching this will probably end up talking to the walls.” While the reviews do contain some interesting analysis as well, it almost feels like these sentences concerning kids must be tacked on as though they were disclaimers.

Of course, this isn't to say that these reviewers are wrong. Cat Soup probably isn't something a child should see.

Based on the work of manga artist Nekojiro, the film follows Nyaata, a kitten who lives with his parents and older sister, Nyaako. We are introduced to him as he drowns in a bath tub after chasing a toy car, a scene which actually might have some educational merit for the pre-k age group. While unconscious, Nyaata dreams that the soul of his sister is led away by Jizô, a Buddhist deity figure who assists the souls of children who die. Nyaata chases them down in the dream and grabs a hold of his sister, pulling her away from Jizô until she tears in half. Nyaata then walks off with his half, but not before Jizô tells him to look for a flower. Except he doesn't say it: there are no voices in Cat Soup, and characters only make strange noises when they “speak.” Instead, some of the character’s lines are illustrated using speech bubbles containing Japanese characters or simple pictographs. In the case of Jizô's advice, we see a flower in a speech bubble to represent the suggestion.

When Nyaata wakes from this dream to his father cleaning his ear after apparently resuscitating him, he is still clutching half of his sister. He has no time to ponder it, though, as his mother rushes into the room almost instantly. The next time we see the family, they are staring at Nyaako in her bed, watching as a doctor pronounces her dead. Without hesitation, Nyaata walks over to his sister and allows the half of her from his dream to enter through her mouth, causing her to sit up and return to a half-living state, complete with a brain dead expression. Her zombie condition seems to be acceptable to her parents, however, as Nyaata and Nyaako are soon sent to buy tofu by their mother. Rather than buy the tofu right away, they instead end up embarking on a surreal, purposeful trip to retrieve the flower from Nyaata’s dream,a journey filled with strange characters and wonderfully vivid sound.

Up until this point, Cat Soup has been more cute than dark. While it deals with death, it also deals with kawaii cats and doctors who use speech bubble pictographs to describe death as a cat angle flying up to heaven. Yet, it’s still death they’re talking about. Adorable cat death, yes, but horrible, scare the shit out of kids death – real death – all the same.

After this point, film takes a turn for the morbid and begins moving along in relatively unexplained jumps, where the setting or even characters on screen can change drastically for little apparent reason. For example, after Nyaata and Nyaako leave to get tofu, they somehow wind up at a circus featuring a man who looks like a joint acting as a magical ringleader. During the circus, a balloon bird filled with clouds bursts, flooding the entire world. When we see Nyaata and Nyaako next, they're on a boat alongside an anthropomorphic pig which they eventually kill and eat.

Fortunately for the audience, an interview appears on the Japan Media Arts site (which also gave the film an “Excellence” prize in 2001) in which Suto himself offers a bit of an explanation for these leaps: “Nekojiru-So" is based on the original story Nekojiru; I made free use, however, of images that came to mind, so that the animation turned into a kind of collage. This infantile approach is no doubt largely responsible for the strangeness of what seems to be a coherent story line, but isn't … No matter what processes are used, the spirit of animation-making pictures move and bringing things to life-remains the same.” It should also be noted that though it's easy to suspect heavy drug use during production, that temptation must be resisted. According to King of Anime Fringe, Sato states no substances were used during the making of the film in an interview included on the DVD.

Lack of drug use aside, Cat Soup is obviously not for kids. But why should it even be considered for kids? Sure, the characters are cute, but that cuteness only serves as an artistic counterpoint to the bizarre, often violent absurdity the kittens encounter on their bizarre quest. Cuteness should not imply kid friendly. When we watch John Travolta act suave in Pulp Fiction, is our first thought “Man, my kids loved John Travolta's suave character in Grease, they'd probably love this movie”? No, of course not (although punishing them with Battlefield Earth might not be a bad idea). We're rational human beings capable of realizing that a suave John Travolta in family friendly Grease does not mean that Pulp Fiction is a good kid's movie, even if Travolta is suave in it.

So why can't we apply this same logic to anime instead of just immediately assuming animation equals kids? Is our culture so deeply-rooted that we cannot possibly accept what we believe to be a kid’s medium as something worthy of adult taste?

It’s a serious issue, and for those say that it isn't, that viewers can still enjoy an anime regardless of the opinions of others, allow me to point out one fact:

Kirsten Stewart is in talks to star in a live action version of Akira.

The situation is dire.

Anime Fringe: http://www.animefringe.com/magazine/2003/12/reviews/03/
Dragonball Wiki: http://dragonball.wikia.com/wiki/Blue_Water_Dub
 IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0385586/
Japan Media Arts Plaza: http://plaza.bunka.go.jp/english/festival/2001/animation/000374/
MTV: http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1674470/kristen-stewart-akira-project-movie-role.jhtml
Shingon: http://www.shingon.org/deities/jusanbutsu/jizo.html
T.H.E.M. Anime Reviews: http://www.themanime.org/viewreview.php?id=657
Project Wikimoon: http://wikimoon.org/index.php?title=Homosexuality_in_Sailor_Moon
Alex Schab is a freelance writer living somewhere between the woods and the suburbs of Massachusetts. This means he spends way too many lonely nights consuming media and beer. Follow him on Twitter (@Schab) as he tries to wrestle some meaning into his life.