‘Ghost Cat Anzu’ Review: Innovation Meets Narrative Struggle In Animated Feature – Cannes Film Festival

Ghost Cat Anzu is an intriguing conceptualization for an animated film, existing in a realm similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away yet also standing as its antithesis.

This French-Japanese co-production from Miyu Productions and Shin-Ei Animation based on the manga by Takashi Imashiro is one of the most eccentric pieces of animation I’ve encountered in a long time — in both good and bad ways. It’s good because of the innovative techniques and methods employed by directors Yôko Kuno and Nobuhiro Yamashita, who take bold experimental leaps. However, it’s also bad because Shinji Imaoka’s script meanders for nearly an hour before reaching the film’s true core, demanding a lot of patience from the viewer without providing much substance in return.

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The story begins with Karin (voiced by Noa Goto) and her father Tetsuya (Munetaka Aoki) arriving at the Sousei-Ji temple, where her widowed grandfather resides. After a 20-year absence, Tetsuya’s sudden appearance shocks his father, but his motive becomes clear: He needs ¥1 million to repay loan sharks or face dire consequences. When his father refuses to help, Tetsuya abandons Karin at the temple, promising to return by the anniversary of her mother’s death.

Left angry and frustrated, Karin soon discovers the temple’s oddities, including Anzu (Mirai Moriyama), a bipedal ghost cat who drives a moped and works as the town masseuse. Anzu, armed with a flip phone, initially shows little interest in Karin. However, after she shares her grief over her mother’s death, they begin to bond. Together, they venture to Tokyo to find her father, only to encounter the God of Poverty, who offers Karin a chance to see her mother again by traveling through a toilet to hell. This uncanny quest only forms at the crux of the film’s third act.

From an animation perspective, Ghost Cat Anzu is remarkable as it becomes evident early on that Kuno and Yamashita utilized live-action recording and rotoscoping techniques. The team filmed the movie in live-action, with a cinematographer and sound engineers, and then meticulously redrew the sequences frame by frame. This method, rarely used in contemporary animation, captures a sense of realism.

The characters’ voices were recorded on location, adding an authentic layer to the film’s sound design. The blend of live-action and animation creates a unique viewing experience, with real places animated over to achieve a surreal, dreamlike quality, and the vibrant watercolors and subtle lines evoke the neo-impressionist works of Renoir, Monet and Bonnard. Although these settings aren’t as fluid as typical Japanese animation, the directors and animators make the settings easy to engage with.

However, the film struggles with pacing and narrative structure. It takes nearly 55 minutes for the plot to take shape. Much of the film’s first hour is spent following Anzu around town, interacting with his forest friends, shopping, cooking and performing other mundane tasks. The film leaves many questions unanswered about him. What exactly makes Anzu a ghost cat? Why does the temple appear enchanted? Not looking to be spoon-fed information, the film provides little context for the bizarre elements it presents, which is crucial for a story as surreal as this. As a character, Anzu isn’t interesting enough to hold up Acts 1 and 2, especially with the blank expressions and monotonous voice that lacks emotion.

Karin’s character development is delayed until the latter half of the film, even though she’s far more textured than Anzu. She is a young girl full of grief and unsure of how to handle it all. Why isn’t that explored further? Also, her initial reactions to the fantastical elements around her are illogical. This might be due to the film’s live-action origins, but one would expect a young girl to be shocked by a large, talking cat walking on two feet. Instead, Karin remains completely unfazed by Anzu’s appearance and doesn’t express surprise or disbelief at any of the occurrences she encounters. Her indifference to a 6-foot-tall talking cat raises the question: Does she regularly encounter such creatures back in Tokyo?

Ghost Cat Anzu would have made an excellent 30-minute short. As a feature-length film, it struggles with pacing and coherence, leaving too many questions unanswered and failing to introduce stakes until it’s almost too late. While the animation techniques and artistic direction are impressive, they can’t fully compensate for the film’s narrative shortcomings. Sure, the film is entertaining when it finally gets going, but it’s a long wait to reach those moments of payoff.

Title: Ghost Cat Anzu
Festival: Cannes (Directors’ Fortnight)
Directors: Yôko Kuno, Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriter: Shinji Imaoka
Cast: Munetaka Aoki, Noa Goto, Mirai Moriyama
Distributor: Gkids
Running time: 1 hr 37 min

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