"Samurai Horror Tales: Goblin Cat" is Spooky, Stylish, and Psychedelic
I’m a sucker for animation that mimics the style of an artist in another medium. The most common examples are cartoons based on comics, with the best known being the Peanuts animated adaptations, which vividly brought Charles Schulz’s children to the screen completely intact visually. Other, less well-known examples include the SciFi Channel’s adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Amazing Screw-on Head (even if Mignola himself doesn’t like it much) and MTV’s animated version of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx. I still think that Robert Rodriguez’s movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City would have been better fully animated.
You’ll have to look a little farther to find animation inspired by art other than comics. Tony White’s Hokusai: An Animated Sketchbook brought the woodblock prints and manga drawings of Katsushika Hokusai to vivid life, and Te Wei’s animated short films resemble animated versions of the ink paintings of Qi Baishi. Now, Ayakashi: Bake Neko (or Samurai Horror Tales: Goblin Cat, as released by Geneon) can be added to that list. Goblin Cat is a dazzlingly stylish tour de force, neatly combining the artistry of Japanese woodblock prints with the sensibilities of psychedelic pop art to produce an astonishing and unique cartoon that shatters the usual genre definitions.
A nameless medicine peddler appears at the household of a rich samurai on the eve of the samurai’s daughter’s wedding to a neighboring warlord. With his strange tattoos, pointed ears, and wood cabinet filled with bizarre medicines, the medicine peddler does not inspire trust in the household. When the bride-to-be is suddenly struck down dead, suspicion immediately falls on the medicine peddler, but he is soon revealed to be the only hope of salvation for everyone in the house. His magic is the only thing keeping a powerful and very angry demon at bay, as he races to exorcise the demon before it destroys them all.
The earlier two Ayakashi films retold classic Japanese ghost stories in a more stereotypical anime visual style. Goblin Cat strikes off boldy in its own direction, both visually and narratively. While it is clearly steeped in Japanese myths and legends, the story of Goblin Cat is original. It quickly settles to a supernatural whodunnit, as the medicine peddler must learn the demon’s katachi (shape), makoto (truth), and kotowari (reason or regret) before it can be exorcised. There are twists and turns aplenty on the way to discovering these three things, with the final revelations echoing Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon while exposing the real monsters in the house. It is quite successful in leaving you incredibly spooked, due to both its overt haunted house tricks and the more psychological horror of the story.
The storytelling is not perfect, however. While the dubbed version of the soundtrack is fine and well-acted, it also seems to miss many of the subtleties communicated in the subtitled version. In both cases, there are occasional stumbling blocks in the narrative where one senses things left unsaid. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell whether this is due to inadequate translation, a cultural reference lost on non-Japanese audiences, a deliberate choice to emphasize the mysterious supernatural aspects of the tale, or just plain bad scripting. The extended family of the bride also seems needlessly complex; many of them are barely sketched-in caricatures, and it can still not be entirely clear why some of them are even there, even after multiple viewings. None of these misfires are very serious, but they are noticeable enough to be disruptive occasionally.
However, the distinct visual style that characterizes Goblin Cat is what will grab your attention. I was so dazzled by the look of the show that I had to restart the disc after 10 minutes once I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the dialogue. Goblin Cat is designed to look like a woodblock print come to life with the distinctive flattening of space, the color palette, and the stylistic flourishes in the characters and their surroundings. There’s even a paper pattern overlaid over whole screen to further mirror woodblock prints.
The artistic sensibilities of woodblock prints are also combined with some powerful Western influences. The opening credits sequence is a perfect example of this melding, with the Japanese-styled art melded with strange psychedelic patterns that make the whole thing look like animated ukiyo-e by Peter Max or Andy Warhol. Ayakashi‘s sonically infectious hip-hop Japanese theme song is far more fitting here than it is in the earlier films. While many of the patterns in the background look lifted straight from woodblock prints, the way they are juxtaposed is deliberately garish, again evoking American modern art. Even the character designs resemble something like Seymour Chwast doing anime. It’s clear that we’re not in Edo any more, Toto.
Goblin Cat also uses CGI animation to terrific effect. Tiny scales that the medicine peddler uses to detect the goblin cat are beautifully rendered in CGI, and the paper charms he uses to ward against the demon scribe themselves with intricate magical symbols and ancient calligraphy. When we finally see the goblin cat itself, it seems to be oozing and flowing on the walls in demonic computer fractal patterns. It also provides sharp contrast between the ukiyo-e style, with its deliberate flattening of space. As a result, the usual clash that occurs when hand-drawn and computer-generated animation are combined is turned into an advantage, since the computer animation becomes a handy visual shorthand for the supernatural at work.
Like the storytelling, not all the animation tricks work as well as they should. Goblin Cat seems to be trying to use minimal movement as a deliberate aesthetic choice, similar to what Genndy Tartakovsky often did in Samurai Jack or the Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts. For the most part, this works, and can add to the sense that it’s a woodblock print come to life. Unfortunately, in Goblin Cat there are times when the effect backfires, making the show look like it was animated on the cheap. This is a common complaint about the DVD seen in many other reviews, and as with the sometimes confusing storytelling, it’s never entirely clear whether the poor animation in spots is deliberate or if they really were just being cheap about it.
The presentation of Goblin Cat on DVD won’t be much of a surprise to those familiar with Geneon’s DVD releases: there will be few complaints about the material and lots of them about the lack of substantive extras. The image is in 4:3 format to match its original broadcast dimensions, and image quality is excellent. As mentioned, the disc comes with both an English dubbed version and a Japanese subtitled version, although I thought the English dub was noticeably worse at communicating the more subtle points of the plot. Both soundtracks are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. There are very few special features on the DVD, with the most useful being a brief glossary of terms used in the story. Credit-free opening and closing sequences are provided as well, along with a brace of three trailers for other Geneon titles.
Ayakashi: Bake Neko clearly resonated with Japanese audiences. It was quickly turned into a 12-episode mini-series called Mononoke where the medicine peddler continues his supernatural adventures in the same psychedelic woodblock world, and was the only Ayakashi story to get a follow-up series. In the wake of Geneon USA’s troubles, one can only hope that Geneon gets back on track or another anime company brings the follow-up series to American shores. Goblin Cat seems like a cartoon that will generate powerful love-it or hate-it reactions, not one for general audiences or even most anime fans. However, it is an incredibly brave aesthetic experiment that proves to be quite unforgettable.