Directed by Tatsuo Satou and with a screenplay by animator Masaaki Yuasa, the 2001 Japanese short film Cat Soup is a contemporary cult classic among fans of the experimental anime genre. Based on Chiyomi Hashiguchi’s 1990 manga Nekojiru, the film would never be seen by the mangaka herself—it was produced three years after her suicide in 1998, under supervision from her husband.
Cat Soup follows the two anthropomorphic cat siblings Nyāko and Nyatta. In Hashiguchi’s original Nekojiru manga, the cats are second-class citizens, only required to attend grade school and incapable of understanding human speech. Below the cats are the pigs, whom Nyāko and Nyatta keep as pets that they feed their own flesh (fried pork) to. This social hierarchy is explicitly based on which species’ lives and deaths matters most. To drive this point home, the film features cartoonish depictions of gore, mutilation, and murder by both humans and the cat children.
In one scene Nyāko and Nyatta go to a circus, where a woman is sliced up and reassembled in a magic show. After slicing the woman, the magician creates a water-balloon shaped bird, who is kept in shackles and abused by humans. While the animal is repeatedly whipped, no “blood” is seen, only water, which contrasts the bloody carnage of the woman. The bird eventually bursts in agony, flooding the entire circus and sending the siblings to sea.
While adrift, the siblings find a wooden raft and use it to safely escape the circus. On board the raft is their domestic servant/pet Butaro, who offers Nyatta fish, but instead is sliced open and fed to Nyāko. Unlike the woman in the circus who is sliced up with magic blades, Butaro is simply unzipped and comically has his internal organs removed and fried on the boat. While the scene is violent, he ultimately leaves alive due to mystical interference that humans only seem to master.
The entire scene is voyueristic because it’s accompanied with an unzipping sound effect suggesting a gesture analogous to the removal of clothing, similar to the shot of the circus woman sprawled across a table. Butaro hungrily eats his own fried flesh after Nyāko, desperate for anything that might be a source of energy. Yet, Butaro is immediately punished for his shameless consumption and is beaten to death by the siblings. Consumption by humans and cats is apparently acceptable, suggesting that the elevation of humans and cats is due to their capacity to consume and use their energy to kill and “re-use” the contents of other animals.
However, in Japanese shintoism, the dividing of a person, and violence in general, is a dangerous form of impurity called Kegare, with both serious ethical and sanitary implications. For Butaro, consuming his own flesh is just as violent and “dirty” of an act as Nyatta slicing him up into pork chops. The parallels between Butaro being “unzipped” and the woman at the circus further emphasize the deviance of this scene, suggesting that symbolic killing and eating also fall under this category of Kegare.
Notably, human flesh can be restored and reassembled by other humans, but not by animals—a device that points to the film’s interest in death and rebirth. A close association with Japanese Buddhism is immediately present in opening sequence of the film, which depicts the older sibling Nyāko being guided to the afterlife by Enma, the Buddhist god of hell. Nyatta, her little brother, manages to tear half of her soul away from Enma before forcing it back into her dying body, technically reviving her. The two siblings quickly run away from home to locate the second half of Nyāko’s soul.
Immediately after bludgeoning Butaro to death, Nyatta’s arm is accidentally sliced off by Nyāko, who also participates in the brutality without hesitation. Nyatta is taken to a human’s shack—notably sinister compared to the circus filled with humans. A woman needles Nyatta’s arm back on, but the siblings quickly leave after seeing her collection of Frankenstein-like kitten corpses. This scene is almost an exact parallel of Butaro’s death: the cats disassemble a body, while the humans put one back together.
Animals are torn open and can be re-assembled by those of a higher social order—humans can repair cats and cats can bludgeon pigs. The bodies of animals—the performing bird at the circus and Butaro the pig—are disposable and ephemeral. While this pattern is reminiscent of the Buddhist theme of reincarnation, the film asks us to consider our treatment of other species, raising the question of who deserves to be consumed by whom, and for what purposes.
In the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, all animals possess the potential for enlightenment, and the doctrine of rebirth states that humans can be reborn as animals and vice versa. Therefore, it’d be no better to take an animal’s life than it would be to kill another human. A violent death would also be considered Kegare, thus making both the cat siblings and the humans guilty of ethical transgression. Some Japanese Shinto texts on Kegare even include the consumption of meat as among the “six taboos,” or the “rokushiki no kinki.” The humans are bad, yes, but their acts of defilement don’t necessarily let Nyatta and Nyāko off the hook either.
Humans are marked apart from animals in the film by their mastery of machinery—most notably a cyborg who welcomes the siblings into his mansion, and “Father Time” who operates a large mechanical wheel in order to control the passage of time. Again, the themes of consumption is repeated when the siblings trick the cyborg into being cooked alive—the only example we see of the cats outsmarting humans and their machinery.
On the final leg of their journey, the siblings have a brief encounter with the Buddha. After killing the cyborg, they become trapped in a series of abstract frozen scenes. None of this imagery depicts other animals. Instead, these scenes depict a woman jumping in front of a train, nuclear mushroom clouds, a car accident, and prisoners of war being shot and killed. These shots are excessively violent and deviate significantly from the film’s simple art style.
Again, we are presented with an onslaught of images that would fall under the category of Kegare. The deaths caused by these incidents, however, are reversed by “Father Time,” and then re-committed, suggesting that these experiences of time and death are only subjective. The only suffering the siblings endure is a magical aging and de-aging until they find themselves back on their boat, sans Butaro, the only animal who is exempted from this cycle of death and rebirth.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the term Śūnyatā refers to an acceptance of emptiness and non-existence. In Tendai, the Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism, physical aesthetics such as art and poetry were not seen as conflicting with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths—the disavowal of craving and desire—therefore allowing for some forms of consumption while denying others. To want and consume is to suffer, and to no longer want and to acknowledge emptiness is to end suffering.
On their way to retrieve the other half of Nyāko’s soul, the siblings encounter a robotic Godzilla-shaped Buddha that extends its steam-powered heart towards them. By completing their trip, it’s suggested the siblings have learned the importance of Śūnyatā, and consequently, understanding that some forms of consumption and desire lead to suffering. This message is mixed, much like Tendai Buddhism, where this rule of “consumption only under certain circumstances” prevails.
This emphasis on the “nothingness” of Śūnyatā is also felt in the film’s ending, where the entire family, save for Nyatta, simply vanish after watching a television program. Nyāko’s soul half is only recovered once she consumes the flower produced by the void their boat ostensibly floats on. Technology made by humans consumes others, while nature is consumed by the non-human animals, ending on a bitter note suggesting some species are inherently worthier of consumption than others.
In other words, to consume is to establish a position of systemic power through the creation of methods of keeping other species submissive. To consume another being is to cause suffering and create energy, thus continuing the cycle of reincarnation, implicating a position that death is cruel but necessary. While this perspective only further empowers humans, Cat Soup provides an abstract, yet startling criticism of power dynamics among species and the philosophical implications of rebirth and non-human animal death.