Fantasia has done an awful lot to showcase the best of madcap Japanese genre filmmaking over the last few years. In 2018, it hosted the Canadian premiere of the unlikely breakout hit One Cut of the Dead (2017), Shinichiro Ueda’s ostensibly one-take horror-comedy about a film crew attempting to make a zombie movie. A few years later, it boasted the North American premiere of Junta Yamaguchi’s cartoonish time-loop picture Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2021), which received a five-star review here at Our Culture. Reiki Tsuno’s feature debut Mad Cats is the latest film in this lineage, a delightfully off-kilter movie that injects a healthy dose of absurdist Japanese comedy into a high-octane action plot – doing for the action-thriller what One Cut of the Dead and Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes did for horror and science fiction respectively. Our Culture reviews the film here as part of its selection form the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Mad Cats follows Taka Kurosawa (Shô Mineo), who we meet at a particularly low period in his life; he is living in a filthy trailer with no drive or purpose. That is, at least, until his long-suffering landlady delivers a mysterious cassette tape in a brown envelope. The voice on the recording informs him that his brother Mura (So Yamanaka), an archeologist and cat expert, has been kidnapped – and it is up to Taka to rescue him and obtain a mysterious wooden box from the same isolated mansion in which he is being held captive. As Taka sets out to complete this mission, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving forbidden catnip and highly evolved feline creatures hellbent on world domination, and has only two allies to rely on in his quest to bring them down – listless drifter Takezo (Yûya Matsuura) and the enigmatic Ayane (credited only as Ayane).
It goes without saying that Mad Cats has a hilariously weird plot, then, and one that draws on Japan’s love of all things feline – which has long been evident in its cinema, from Kuroneko (1968) to Studio Ghibli. But despite its eccentric narrative, there are more than a few familiar elements to be found here as the film borrows from and cleverly satirises the tropes of global action cinema for laughs. The film apes the crash-cut montage editing used extensively in Edgar Wright’s Three Colours Cornetto trilogy; the infamous Michael Bay ‘hero shot’; and the grainy 16mm aesthetics associated with 1970s grindhouse thrillers, which are sparingly deployed to jarringly comedic effect only in scenes that see Taka, Tazeko and Ayane take to the road together (at one point in a car bearing the license plate “HISSATU” in a great visual gag).
And, of course, Mad Cats wouldn’t be an action film without some thrilling action sequences, as Taka and his newfound friends come up against a litany of heavily armed cat-people, including the Insane Nunchaku (Ruice Mori) and the shotgun-wielding Remington Sisters (Ayaka Takezaki and Shen Tanaka). The visual effects used to realise gunfire and blood splatter throughout the film are a little bit disappointing, but forgivable given the film’s budget level – and it more than makes up for them with some excellently choreographed fight scenes, particularly as the film reaches its conclusion and Ayane is forced to engage in melee battle with the cat monsters.
Not that Taka gets involved with much of the action; he is, in fact, hilariously ineffectual throughout the entire movie. Unwaveringly cowardly and mildly allergic to cats, he spends much of the film screaming, hiding, running away and/or sneezing. He is reminiscent of the frankly useless “action heroes” at the centre of films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988), both of whom give way to far more capable women (in this case Ayane, without whom both Taka and Tazeko would be cat food). His fairly lame excuse for letting Ayane do the fighting is that the cat-people are all female, and “men shouldn’t go around hitting women.” But a benefit to his characterisation as a coward is that Mad Cats ends up being a film in which women hold the most powerful roles – as both heroes and villains – without ever feeling exploitative.
And even if they are basically useless in the action stakes, Taka and Tazeko play an important role at the comedic heart of the movie; Mineo provides some excellent physical comedy as Taka (he trips on the stairs mere moments after infiltrating the mansion where he has been told he will find his brother), while Matsuura elicits many of the film’s biggest laughs as Tazeko (especially when the film effectively stops for three minutes to let him to tell a lengthy and groan-worthy joke about a centipede). One of the funniest things about Tazeko’s character is that he has absolutely no reason to have gotten caught up in the film’s feline conspiracy in the first place (or the effort to stop it); he just has nothing better to do.
Ultimately, Mad Cats doesn’t quite live up to either One Cut of the Dead or Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes – two films that ooze innovation and ingenuity through their unusual narrative structures and the mind-boggling feats of narrative continuity needed to realise them – but it is nevertheless a very worthy entry in a recent cycle of eccentric Japanese genre mash-ups, which cleverly borrows and deconstructs the tropes of the action genre. If you’ve ever wondered if your cat is planning to take over the world (or if they’d be any good with a pair of nunchucks), this one’s for you.