Making a Happy Machine out of Cat Soup

happymachinePerhaps, Mind Game would be a more sensible comparison, since it was the first thing Masaaki Yuasa would direct after his involvement in Cat Soup with animation direction, scenario and storyboard. However, the commonality of Happy Machine and Cat Soup doesn’t stop at the abstract, dialogue-less nature and ranges from the shared focus on the circle of life and the clutches of death to the ironic display of heart in their mechanical devices. Revamping the recipe of Cat Soup’s food for thought to skyrocket a pursuit of happiness showcases the progress Yuasa would look forward to in his directorial career.

Butterfly wings jumpstart Mind Game’s expressionistic love scene and despite being directly lifted from Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, they feel right at home in Yuasa’s playground as Ping Pong patiently waits for Smile to take flight. Even when the imagery doesn’t actually appear (in the place of moths, but transformative nonetheless), Tatami Galaxy is built on the butterfly effect. Kemonozume, Kaiba and Food Chain witness various changes too, but they’re far removed from Cat Soup’s opening vision of ants spreading decay around an empty cicada shell, foreshadowing the sister’s out-of-body experience. The wind chime sways for whom the bell tolls and death carries her away until brotherly love narrowly wins a tug of war over her soul. In light of physically escaping death, its presence remains in ominous spirals finding form in a flower’s vitality and the struggle resumes, with life hanging in the balance of each side taking turns to pull it back or push it forward.

The dizzying spell of death’s arrival leaves the sister’s head spinning clockwise, while the hands of God move counter-clockwise to undo what has been done. Similar scenes are reenacted through more worldly interactions, such as the bird forced to circle the dinner table until it catches on fire and the brother getting his arm sewn back together, prior to the sight of a windmill turning in the opposing direction. It’s a vicious cycle, wrestling between diving into a kaleidoscope of color and bone-chilling lifelessness washing up on the shore. With tomorrow shrouded in shadows, it’s a relief to see bullets return to their chambers and halves become whole again as a sign of God’s love giving us second chances, which speaks to me as a cancer survivor.

I’m just sick of all the gloomy movies coming out these days! I decided I’d had enough with dark stuff after Cat Soup. What I want to see is positive movies from now on. Enough turning inwards, people; let’s turn outwards! What’s important is right here on this earth. Not everybody’s dreams come true, but only those who act have a chance of achieving their dreams. All differences aside, it all boils down to one thing: The world is interesting!

For all Yuasa’s desperation to detach himself from Cat Soup’s gloom and doom, there exists a dash of optimism in the iron butterfly landing on a familiar flower, once masked by a spider’s web. The sister sulks in perpetual apathy, if not depression, for almost the entire adventure until her brother brightens her day with this flicker of hope. There’s ambiguity in the ending that follows, which brings doubt back into question, but the credits scene quickly rebounds to seal the deal. The short sequence rewinds itself again and again, allowing the sister to countlessly relive what looks like the happiest time of her life for all eternity. That said, Happy Machine trades off a mere flicker of hope for a chance at achieving full-blown radiance.

To backtrack a bit, Cat Soup initially ends with the family disappearing along with the TV signal, whereas that same visual tick gives life to the baby’s journey in Happy Machine. Impermanence fills the lives of everyone met along the way, but their absences make the man and the path that he takes. The baby soon grows into an old, patched up half-man/half-machine, who strikes a fusion similar to the metallic soul of Cat Soup; the difference lies in the direction they find their finish lines. Both are accompanied by the soothing melody of a music box, yet one can only look back on our fondest memories, while the other firmly presses forward into the final shot that reads ‘next’. The unforgiving bite of the circle of life is reinterpreted into the warm intimacy of parental devotion. Duty meets empathy in a voluntary surrender when parents make big sacrifices to grant their children even a little bit of happiness. And what follows this fleeting paradise? Who knows, but we won’t find out by running in place.

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