Takeuchi Michihiro's The End of the World and the Cat's Disappearance
, a zany, modestly packaged apocalyptic sci-fi film revolving around Itsuko (Izukoneko aka Mari), a vlogger-cum-J-pop-idol who attempts to singlehandedly save the world from a gigantic meteor, but ends up getting dragged into an intergalactic intrigue by two female Jovians in skimpy clothes, holds up a lot better than its decidedly silly central premise would suggest. Beyond the surface quirkiness, the picture offers a surprisingly bittersweet meditation on hope and its ability to change one's destiny, while maintaining a constant tone of lighthearted and offbeat humor.
Takeuchi, who himself broadcasts live performances by popular Japanese bands on his YouTube channel, previously directed only one small feature, the virtually unknown experimental film Atarashii Sensou wo Hajimeyou (literally "Let's Start a New War"), for which he received the Second Grand Prize at the 2012 MOOSIC Awards.
Taking full advantage of both well-known and obscure locations in and outside of Tokyo, Takeuchi creates a fairly realistic sense of a neo-dystopia circa 2035. Interestingly, central Shinjuku, often referred to as the most futuristic district in all of Tokyo, masquerades as Shin (New) Tokyo, situated somewhere in the Kansai region of Japan, one of the very few places untouched by a deadly disease that years ago devastated large parts of the country. Despite the youthful vibrancy that permeates Shinjuku area even during regular daytime working hours, Takeuchi's camera convincingly captures the uninhabited urban cityscapes, an eerie reminder of a bygone era.
Clocking in at just shy of 90 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, but because of a few unnecessary elements -- like animated cut scenes and the insignificant subplot about Itsuko's high school friend Suko's (Aonami Jun) one-woman protest -- eventually becomes a high-low mélange that veers between cartoonish and sincere. Although often witty and hilarious, the live-chat element might quickly prove to be an eyesore, especially for viewers who can't read Japanese. English subtitles certainly improve the experience, but only for the first few minutes.
What definitely helps to put the picture back on its feet is the sudden appearance of a mysterious creature Izukoneko, a half-cat, half-human who, according to Itsuko's loyal followers and friends, might or might not be the girl's alter ego, and the only living thing on Earth that's able to survive on contaminated land. The wholly unexpected discovery causes chaos both in Itsuko's life and on screen, initiating an uncontrollable influx of views and comments on her latest live stream. This cleverly designed fantastical element, along with the film's very Murakami-esque English title, adds a genuine touch of mystery to an already fascinating premise.
Beyond a bunch of repeated shots of the few aforementioned locations and some really amateurish green screen effects, on a technical level The End of the World and the Cat's Disappearance doesn't really offer much, but what the film lacks in production values and visual finesse, it more than makes up for in originality and characters.
Apart from Itsuko and Suko, the film concentrates on the girls' homeroom teacher, Miike-sensei (played by Nishijima Daisuke, original creator of the manga "Sekai no Owari no Izukoneko", on which the film is based) who, despite an impending disaster, continues to teach his students, and on the two mysterious Jovians ingeniously called Rainy (Midorikawa Momoko) and Irony (Nagai Ako), who somehow intercepted Itsuko's broadcast and are on their way towards planet Earth.
Takeuchi has made the right decision in casting amateurs, as it not only allowed him to spend more money on additional equipment, but also gave the film an admirably refreshing vibe. Given that decidedly bizarre nature of the material, the laid-back performances seem perfectly fitting, and so do the music video interludes by the real-life idol Izukoneko.
Despite various technical and budgetary limitations, The End of the World and the Cat's Disappearance turns out to be a truly entertaining and enjoyable experience, as well as a perfect morning viewing. Let's hope Takeuchi will be able to surprise us again soon.
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