The Life of Budori Gusuko: Written and directed by Gisaburo Sugii. Starring: Shun Oguri, Shiori Kutsuna, Akira Emoto, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Tamiyo Kusakari. Running Time: 108 minutes. Based on a novel by Kenji Miyazawa.
Rating: 3/4 Stars
Budori Gusuko lives in a world of cats. I don’t mean that there are humans, who are dominated by cats, I mean that cats are the people themselves. They walk on their hind legs and use their front paws as hands, but aside from that, they look like perfectly normal cats. He and his family live in the woods on a mountainside, where the father is a popular lumberjack. The land is rich and fertile, and although their life is simple, they lack for nothing. Until the cold comes, that is- a combination of freezing, snowy winters and too-short summers prevent anything from growing for a long time, until, in the midst of a desperately bitter snowstorm, Budori loses his entire family- the father wanders off, the mother goes missing searching for him, and his little sister vanishes shortly afterward.
As a result, when the winter finally ends, Budori lacks any reason to stay in the mountain, and he begins traveling and searching the world for a purpose in his life. This leads to a series of adventures where he meets an assortment of oddball characters- a red-bearded cat who is way too cheerful about how terrible his business skills are, a zany professor in a top-hat who gives what is either the stupidest or the most accurate breakdown of the study of history ever uttered, and a tall, demonically wide-eyed cat in a swirling, dark cloak, who may or may not be Death himself.
The animation is one of the primary strengths of the film- it’s a more traditional hand drawn style with watercolor backgrounds (although there was some CGI thrown in at times). We start in a peaceful, idyllic forest, and finish in a massive, futuristic city filled with enough flying machines to make Miyazaki green with envy. Each new setting is detailed, and interesting, the flying machines are quite memorable, and the designs of the cats-as-people look surprisingly natural. Despite the vast difference in the settings of the story, every location feels like an organic part of the same world.
The overall plot of Budori, much like the animation style, is very episodic- the audience simply follows Budori himself through the major events of his life. His presence is more or less the only connecting thread between the three major sections of the film, with previous experiences rarely, if ever, mentioned. I was flummoxed by this at first, but then I reminded myself that two of my favorite films of all time are 2001 and Waking Life , both of which utterly defy traditional narrative interpretation, so I can hardly criticize Budori for splitting up the narrative like a TV show. Where the film definitely delves into the realm of the bewildering, however, is in the cracks between the major story arcs. Between each part of Budori’s journey (and sometimes during one), he falls asleep and (seemingly without cause) begins to have fantasies that should make acid-trippers feel quite at home. These fantasies themselves bear no clear connection to the “real-life” experiences in the rest of the movie, so the purpose they are supposed to serve is very much up to individual interpretation. They are at least intriguing to try and pick apart, and they also feature the appearance of the wonderfully designed Cat That May Signify Death mentioned above.
What ultimately does hurt the film is Budori himself, who very much comes across as an empty vessel for most of the film. I’ve racked my brain for several days, but I still can’t recall a single expression crossing his face other than a very faint smile. And that’s not something I can pin on the animation, because the other characters are plenty expressive- part of what makes the aforementioned bearded cat so much fun is the idiotic grin that never leaves his face. The voice actor is also rather underwhelming, barely emoting more than Budori’s face does. It’s not a deal-breaker, and it doesn’t make him a weak character, but it does limit the extent to which the audience can really identify with him.
Both Budori’s personality and actions in the movie as a whole made a lot more sense to me after I shoehorned the whole film into my own highly-probably interpretation; I posit that the loss of Budori’s family has left him with a severe case of PTSD. The repression of his guilt, as a result, leads to both the bizarre fantasies and the decisions he ultimately makes about his life. Is that what Sugii intended? I highly doubt it, but it certainly made the film a lot more interested for me. I don’t know if or when this film will get a release in the States, but I definitely recommend this film for its sheer strangeness- I suspect this movie could be another one that people either love or hate, but it will get you thinking regardless.