Tomcat’s Big Adventure

I got to see a very, very rare Japanese film last night: Tomcat’s Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険 地球を救え!なかまたち / Chibineko Tom no Daibouken: Chikyuu o Sukue! Nakama-tachi)


Tomcat’s Big Adventure was to be the debut feature of Ryūtarō Nakamura, best known as the director of serial experiments lain (1998) and Kino’s Journey (2003). Five years in the making, it was an anime adaptation of a children’s book by Masumi Iino and Yumiko Imai, and featured incredible talent from the likes of Toshiyuki Inoue and Hiroyuki Okiura (key animation), Manabu Ōhashi (a.k.a. Mao Lamdo, animation direction & character design), Kenji Kawai (music), Hiromasa Ogura (art direction & background art), and Shigeharu Shiba (audio direction). Despite production being temporarily halted due to a cost overrun – underscored by the burst of the Japanese economic bubbleTomcat’s was completed in 1992. But when the movie’s production/distribution company went bankrupt, plans to release it were shelved indefinitely; its theatrical run didn’t ever happen, with its only screenings being in small, local venues plus a handful of showings on regional TV. Even animators in the industry often hadn’t heard of its existence, and it began to be called a “phantom” or “fabled” (幻 maboroshi) work – as this translator puts it, “something so fantastic, rare and mysterious that its very existence has come into question”.

Nearly 20 years later, an individual named Mitsuhiro Akashi learned of the film through a friend of his who held the copyright, having inherited the rights from her late father who had invested in the work. Akashi and the friend began promoting the film online which reinvigorated fan interest, and resulted in a screening event hosted by Manabu Ōhashi in late 2012. This (presumably) caught the attention of Tollywood – a small, independent/arthouse cinema in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo (where, incidentally, I got to see the great 1987 film Gondola back in 2017) – and they were able to bring Tomcat’s to their theatre at the end of 2014 for a one-month-only engagement (which was then extended another month due to demand).

Akashi also ran a crowdfunding campaign around this time to produce a 35 mm digital remaster of the film, but the Blu-Ray’s distribution was limited to the 225-ish supporters, and it has never appeared online (legally or illegally). The digital version has been shown briefly in a couple venues in Japan (such as at Tollywood again in 2019), once in Switzerland, and once in France, but it’s never been available to publicly purchase or watch at home.

For more information, see this comprehensive blogpost by Ben Ettinger on director Nakamura’s early work, and the blogpost and forum post which include some pictures from the film. You can watch the trailer and the first five minutes with English subtitles on YouTube, along with these three clips. Also, check out @ProjectTomcat on Twitter which seeks to raise awareness of the film and encourage an English-language release. The film’s official Japanese homepage is here; interviews with two of the staff are on the “Tom’s World” page, one of which has been translated.

Outside Osu Cinema.

And so! After just barely missing my one, day-of chance last month in Hawaiʻi to see the new Ghibli–Miyazaki film How Do You Live (I refuse to use the heinous localized title) before moving here to Nagoya, but nonetheless actively excited to go see SPY×FAMILY CODE: White next month, I (…during work yesterday…) decided to look up my local cinemas & showtimes just to see what else was playing in theatres, in anticipation. And, lo and behold, “Tomcat’s Big Adventure” was listed?! I thought I was misunderstanding something at first, because I was in shock that this essentially-unreleased film was screening anywhere, right at this exact moment, much less at a close-by, small, local theatre. And since I was leaving today on a weekend trip to Kyoto, and the screenings end on Sunday… again my one, single chance to go was day-of, that night. True serendipity!

The wall display at the cinema. Chirashi poster, a phrase repeated in the film, premise blurb, character/cast list, staff biographies, production info, free sticker info, showtimes, and some stills. (I stitched this together in HQ from six photos!)

Note: Video clips in the section below are courtesy of Sakugabooru user WTBorp who uploaded them after getting ahold of one of the mystical crowdfunded Blu-Rays (yet won’t release the full film, hmm…)

Plot recap

It’s summer break! School is out and a small cat named Amy in 2nd grade goes looking for her classmate-slash-boyfriend Tom, our titular protagonist. She finds him and their teacher in a bush collecting snails because, well, naturally. Tom’s easily-distractible like me and, on the way home, sees a mysterious pink balloon-like figure in a puddle he’s stomping through, but Amy dismisses him. They meet up with their older siblings, Mark and Alex, in a cool abandoned bus which they use as their clubhouse. Mark is Tom’s rough-around-the-edges brother, and the scientific and inquisitive Alex is Amy’s brother, both in 5th grade (but drawn to look more like teenagers). Their friend Bob, who loves food and will eat everything and anything all the time, is also there, wearing a very snazzy watermelon shirt. Alex talks about their plan for summer vacation and what they’ll do, which involves going to the nearby Mount Pinto and investigating the strange sounds coming from it. Suddenly another cat shows up, Laura, who’s also in 5th grade and seems pretty spacey, and they let her tag along on their adventure since she’s overheard their conversation (Amy likes that another girl will be joining the group). As they peer out at the mountain, which is emanating a weird light too, it suddenly starts raining furiously for 30 seconds and lighting strikes the mountain. Bob gets super scared and cries. Someone remarks that it’s a sign tomorrow will have great weather. I guess!

The next morning (barely, it’s still dark outside), they all meet up. Bob arrives late by bike with food hanging out of his mouth (classic) and they begin their trek up the mountain. Alex is worried they’re not sticking to their schedule, but Mark wants to take some extra time to explore, and has Tom stick his head into a hole that turns out to be filled with one million bugs which then proceed to fly away. They see that the bridge they were going to take is destroyed, probably in the storm yesterday, but Mark has the idea to go through the hole they saw before. They have fun making faces in the dark holding their flashlights under their heads. Eventually they reach an area where Tom falls into a pit of something that looks like sparkling soap bubbles. Alex wants to take a sample and study it scientifically (classic) but by the time he’s done with his spiel, the rest of them have already dived in and are playing around like it’s a bathtub. After leaving the pit, the group realizes they’re a bit lost since a bug has chewed through the rope that Alex was using to mark their path. To get out, they throw Tom straight upward with some metal stakes and, with a rope trailing beneath him, he climbs up a tunnel in the ceiling to reach the surface. Everyone follows except Bob, who needs an apple dangled on the end of the rope to motivate him to climb up (classic).

At the top of the mountain, they take a break (Bob says “yay!” and everyone laughs) and then notice some rocks arranged in a weird formation. Tom thinks he sees the mysterious balloon thing from before in one of the stone slabs and, as he touches the rock’s surface, it turns soft and sticky like the scene where that mirror goop takes Neo into the Matrix. Tom shouts for his brother and they all try to go help him, but instead all get whisked into some sort of extra-dimensional space with some really great morphing animations:

In this space (literally the background is outer space), the pink balloon child whose name is Chiki explains that the Earth is going to be destroyed (lit. 壊す kowasu ‘to break’) unless they help put six pieces of something-or-other (I think parts of Chiki’s body, which is also Earth itself?) back together. Chiki can also change size and create projections of what they would look like if they were different shapes, and has some friends of different colors who are more like ghosts. Chiki’s name is Chiki because it’s short for chikyuu ‘earth, globe’. Because they’re all kids, they try to naïvely force the pieces back together inside Chiki, which isn’t how you’re supposed to do it, and as a result they all repel each other like magnets. The kids are flung to different corners of the Earth but luckily Tom, Amy, and Chiki end up all in the same place. There’s even a little map we get to see showing where people are! Chiki suggests going to the mountain spire where the bird clan lives, since they have been able to harness the power of flight (being birds and all) and also have a mysterious seed which can bestow this ability via anthropomorphization to any object it touches. Chiki blows up like a giant paraglider and asks them to hold on, and whisks them into the vicinity. Chiki’s verbal tic is ending every sentence with “chiki” instead of one of the usual Japanese particles, by the way.

Cats are the natural enemies of birds, though, and they have a messy history – so despite the children’s pleas and Chiki projecting a gigantic bird face in the air, the old birds in charge refuse their request and don’t believe their claims that the world’s going to end. Some other unruly kid birds overhear the commotion and offer to help them because, in their words, they like fun things happening. They’re able to procure some bird costumes and their new bird friend named Ludo helps them sneak by all the watchful bird adults into an ancient room, where Tom finds three seeds (I think they’re supposed to be helicopter seeds, aka wingnuts or samaras, but they just look like acorns.) There’s also a painted etching of the ancient king of the feline tribe who once ruled the world, Leonis. Foreshadowing! Tom is weak and throwing the acorn at his shovel (or spade) doesn’t seem to do anything, but Ludo kicks it and it suddenly turns into a vehicle they use to escape:

Meanwhile, Laura wakes up in the water and soon finds herself in a city floating upon the waves. Everyone in the city seems to know her, and she is greeted by a beautiful boy (I thought he was just a bokukko girl at first) named Ranmaru who tells her to get on his water glider. She obliges immediately (why not) and while sailing the sea, Ranmaru makes a hooting sound which causes a giant whale named Don to rise up beneath them. Ranmaru’s face constantly looks like the -_- emoticon. They arrive at a house on land, and the map (which is flashing on screen every so often for our convenience, which I thought was really playful and fun) shows us that Tom and Amy plan to rendezvous with them there. The traveling music is really good. When they meet up, Bob also appears… but only fragments of him phasing in and out of existence in the air, as he is apparently halfway between here and some other place. That other place is literally the arctic during a snowstorm, and Bob is so hungry he goes fishing with his tail, and then ends up falling in, which only makes him drenched and even closer to probably dying from frostbite. There’s also a little mouse man who talks like the Nutcracker in wonderfully-jerky motions and starts every sentence with “no no no” (in English).

While the group reconvenes inside the house, a child from the village begins to play with their flying shovel and navigates it out over the ocean, and they give chase via Don the whale. To save the young boy from an electrified vortex (?) Ranmaru sacrifices himself by jumping into the waves, and is able to hand them the boy safely before he’s swept out to sea. Laura is very sad and their flying shovel is also destroyed. On the back of the whale, Tom throws his next acorn at a slingshot, which grows a face (seen on the movie’s poster) and is able to fly them to their next destination, Mark.

Mark is in an extremely grungy and cool cyberpunk city named Neo-Gurt (my best guess at transliterating ネオグルト Neoguruto) which is literally straight out of Akira or Ghost in the Shell… which makes sense considering art director Hiromasa Ogura and soundtrack composer Kenji Kawai also worked on Ghost in the Shell a few years later in 1995. Criminals abound under the darkness and dim streetlights of Neo-Gurt, and Mark is forced to pay his last coin to young monkey boy named Michael to guide him around. Michael complains that it’s foreign currency but accepts it anyway, and takes him to a cat woman named Chloe whose head is shaped like a boomerang. Chloe, however, ends up using her guards to restrain Mark after finding out his story – she reveres Leonis, and therefore wants the world to end in hopes of Leonis coming back. After a brief earthquake or something (typical Japan), Mark escapes, steals a skateboard from a gang, and we’re presented with probably my favorite chase scene I’ve ever seen in animation:

Tom, Amy, and Laura arrive just in time on their flying slingshot and they escape their pursuers, but in the end find themselves right back in Chloe’s lair. Whoops. While Tom tries to figure out what to use his third and final acorn on to help them escape, Chiki turns into a giant dragon face in attempt to scare Chloe away. While the group runs up a staircase to a giant pile of fruit (for some reason, but I’m not one to complain about fruit), Chiki’s projection backfires because all it does is activate Chloe’s gigantic, red cat-robot-security-system who has been roaming around on sleep mode, but is now slithering toward them with honestly-very-creepy slanted eyes. At the last moment, sensing the fruit, Bob appears and his between-dimensionness spreads, enveloping the entire building and everyone there with crackling red electricity and making them all disappear.

Cut to Alex, who is in some ruined tomb and is following the guidance of Leonis’ voice (possibly in a dream?) to escape the Indiana Jones-esque temple with giant spikes that are trying to impale him. He follows what the voice tells him to do and rearranges some crystals in a very specific formation, which seems like instructions he should not be following blindly (although this is the Japanese way), which converge to a point of light and then lifts him up in a tractor beam. The light rises even higher up in the night sky over what appear to be the Egyptian Pyramids (that’s where we are) and flies into the head of what appears to be the Sphinx with tusks and a large horn. This is Leonis’ body which has long been imprisoned and, now free, courtesy of Alex being easy to deceive, his destructive resurrection process begins.

It’s night, and the ground begins breaking apart and crumbling with a loud rumble. Alex, who trusted Leonis, says, “Surely your dream isn’t to destroy the Earth!” to which Leonis looks at him hauntingly – we see a solemn close-up of his eyes – and replies, “I am abandoning the Earth. I’m deciding now.” (「俺は地球を見捨てる。俺の方からな。」 / “Ore wa chikyuu o misuteru. Ore no hou kara na.” – The original line is quite difficult to interpret, much less translate.)

The rest of the film was honestly pretty confusing to me. The teleporters (that is, our whole main gang, Chloe and her henchmen, and also Ludo and the other two birds) teleport right in front of Leonis. Chloe is surprised at Leonis’ apathy and sheer destructive power, and her cat-robot proves ineffective against him. In the chaos, everyone gets knocked off the cliff and begins to fall into the darkness. While falling, Tom’s last acorn hits his hat, which turns into a gigantic flying cap, zipping them along the cliffside as the earth disintegrates, the now-giant flying-carpet-like hat getting battered and ripped by falling rocks. Finally all together, they put their pieces of Chiki/earth close to each other and begin crying and chanting “Come together, come together, our Earth!” (つながれ、つながれ、ぼくらの地球 / Tsunagare, tsunagare, bokura no chikyuu) for two minutes straight. Leonis bursts through a rock and rescues them, letting them ride on his back as the pieces of Chiki/earth connect and the land comes back together. Earth is saved!

Calmness slowly returns, the sky turns light, and the chaos all but disseminates. Back on the top of Mt. Pinto, everyone begins cheering, overcome with joy and accomplishment. Chiki transforms from a balloon into a heart, thanks everyone, and disappears. Leonis appears and says that he is still leaving Earth, and flies off into the sky. The friends, now alone, inspect their clothes to see they that are tattered and torn, a testament to the fact that their adventure really did happen. The credits roll and the song “Mabushii Natsuyasumi” (まぶしい夏休み, ‘A dazzling summer vacation’) by Junko Hirotani plays as crayon drawings of Tom’s illustrated summer break diary (a common Japanese school project) appear on-screen. He even shows off the snails he found. The end!

Analysis & thoughts

The film was spectacular, with (as expected) incredible animation throughout and invigorating, well-fitting music. It felt dynamic, lively, and so unique – had Tomcat’s been released in 1992, it would have been absolutely seminal, inspiring so many both part of and outside the animation industry. I thought some cuts and endings to conversations seemed a bit abrupt, but I suspect it’s a style of the time.

Tomcat’s is definitely a children’s movie, but with some darker undertones and moments. The stylization is astounding and, at times, shocking, and the film feels in a class of its own; even after reflecting for a day, I can’t truly compare it to other works I’ve seen. In other words, it embodies the gestalt – it is more than just a combination of its perceived neighbors or parts. My best attempt is to say it’s somewhat tonally like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind plus Laputa: Castle in the Sky meets Masaaki Yuasa’s Kaiba. But maybe this is just because of the concrete story elements… a giant amoral warrior being resurrected, powerful crystals and humanoid robots, and the “visit the various wildly-different environments” plotline present in the first half of Kaiba (which I also made subtitles for, by the way, with a full v2 revision & brand new script coming next year). But what it is not like (but I fear people may want to compare it to) is any other older Japanese film featuring anthropomorphic cats, most famously Cat Soup (Nekojiru Udon) or Night on the Galactic Railroad. It’s so, so, so much better, snazzier, more fun, more thought-provoking, more inventive, more enriching than those. Oh, how I wish this got released instead.

One small point that I absolutely adored, and which stood out to me time and time again, was how the cats were shown in their wild animal-like state, on all fours running or hissing or clawing, in a few instances of extreme peril – as if they were reverting to their natural tendencies and only walk upright as a more “conscious” or evolved trait. For example, see this fantastically-animated clip of Mark running away from Cleo:

The character of Leonis was also quite interesting to me, as scenes featuring him and his mysterious storyline were the hardest for me to follow, understand, or process. I feel as if he’s quite the complicated character, and that there was a lot of depth behind his dialogue, some of which I surely didn’t catch or can’t remember. The above is all typed from memory, with no other sources on the internet that I could find (in either Japanese or English) recounting the plot in detail. In reading staff interviews and a few Japanese fans’ reactions and musings, though, I’ve learned that Ōhashi drew and envisioned the character of Leonis as essentially identical to Toru Rikiishi from the 1968 boxing manga Ashita no Joe. I’ve seen a few different people compare him to Long John Silver from Treasure Island as well. I’m personally reminded of the role Kaworu Nagisa plays in Neon Genesis Evangelion – and the resulting fan fervor not despite, but because of his short-lived, colorful, and largely-unexplained and mysterious appearances.

I’ve also seen mentioned that in the original book, Leonis’ wings were those of birds; as the king who was responsible for many birds dying a long time ago, and as cats and birds are “opposites” in a way (predator vs. prey), depicting him as now having features of both (or, intentionally not doing this in the movie) seems a consequential and interesting choice, but one I don’t fully understand. I really do hope to see the film again someday, and for it to be released more broadly so many more people can see it as well.

Osu Cinema

I’m excited to go back and watch more films at this great little independent cinema. I saw that their planned screenings for later this month include the feminist-anarchist 1966 Czech film Sedmikrásky, which was already on my watchlist, and a 2021 one-man Japanese sci-fi stop motion film called Junk Head which I hadn’t heard of but now very much want to see.

The theatre also gave out numbered tickets in the order they were purchased. My screening only had three other people, and when it was time to enter and choose seats, I had misplaced my ticket in my bag. It was a bit funny how diligent they were about letting me choose my specific seat (out of 45 total) first, ahead of person #2. I told him, no, go ahead, it’s fine, choose your seat first while I search for my ticket – I mean, who’s that picky?!

The theatre also had a choice of a free Nagoya-specific sticker out of two designs drawn by an artist by the name of Ruka Itō, who went to school at the nearby, art-focused Nagoya Zokei University. It was difficult to choose only one!! Ultimately, I went with the orange design featuring Tom and Amy riding on a shachihoko, one of the symbols of Nagoya. There were also postcards for sale drawn by the late Ōhashi, for ¥180 each:

Ruka actually came to the screening the day before me, and dropped off a signed unofficial fanbook with tons of fanart!

All of the contained illustrations are public on her Twitter, and the doujinshi publication doesn’t seem to be for sale anywhere (Edit 12/4: One of the prints is now on BOOTH), so I think it’s OK to post the pages here:

The cinema’s waiting room was also adorned with Chucky dolls and a bunch of books about independent animation, including this making-of artbook & DVD of Hiroyasu Ishida’s 2006 short Fumiko’s Confession – the animator who then went on to form Studio Colorido. (I feel like this is one of those Gobelins-esque shorts that went around on YouTube so many years ago…)

Now, off to Kyoto (and a quick jaunt to Osaka) for the weekend! I’m posting this from the shinkansen, actually…

Thanks for reading.

[Edit 12/2: Apparently just tonight, the day after I went, Sailor Moon/Doremi/Sgt. Frog director Junichi Sato unexpectedly showed up, word got out, and it got super busy! Very cool, but kind of a funny contrast to imagine compared to my showing of four people. :’)]

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4 Responses to Tomcat’s Big Adventure

  1. William (TheRealJuralumin) says:

    So cool! I never knew about this film, and now I really want to see it 😅 I love the art style, and that clip of the chase scene is incredible; the use of colours and lights is quite mesmerising, and the animation is so fluid! It’s such a shame this film never got the wide release it deserved. I really enjoyed the info about the theatre too, I love small independent cinemas, I always prefer to see movies at a place like that instead of one of the big franchise theatres you get in shopping centres. Oh and Ruka’s artwork is so cute!

    • eli says:

      Thank you for the comment, and apologies for my delayed reply – really happy you enjoyed the write-up, and I hope there’s more of a chance to see it in the future! @_ibcf_ on Twitter is doing a lot of the advocating on this front…

      I love smaller, independent & arthouse stuff too. The hand-made wall decoration at Osu Cinema felt so loving and great. There’s another one nearby me in Nagoya as well (not quite this small) that I want to check out at some point.

  2. Mark says:

    Thank you. A THOUSAND THANK YOU’S!!! I’ve seen the Anime News network page, the five minute youtube clip and the websites, including the official page, Ben Ettinger, and the sankugabooru site with all the clips. Your detailed recap was icing to this whole lost film.
    A lot of talented people where involved in this movie, but what really drew me to the movie was the inclusion of Manabu Ohashi(aka Mao Lamdo).
    He was in the industry since the 1960s and worked on a lot of Madhouse projects during the 80s usually doing key animation or animation director. Chibi neko Tom was one of three titles where did character design. The other two were Grimm Douwa – Kin no Tori (Grimm’s Fairy Tales – The golden bird) and a segment on Robot Carnival called ‘Cloud’. Cloud was also the only project where he ever directed.
    Upon the rediscovery of Chibi Neko Tom, he was the most vocal on releasing it to the public, appearing in youtube videos and doing interviews on the official website. Sadly he passed away at 73 last year. Even though I’ll never see the film in the states, I’m grateful for your recap.

    • eli says:

      Mark, thank YOU for taking the time to reach out write this, and for reading as well – this is what makes it worth it!! Your comment totally made my week.

      I should watch the rest of Ohashi/Lamdo’s stuff – I actually wasn’t too familiar with him before this! One of the reasons the setup was/is the way it is (only screening on rare occasions at arthouse theaters), from what I understand, is because it was sort of a vehicle for Ohashi to tour around a bit, talk about the film, etc. and really have that sort of personal connection to audiences. Like you said, he was vocal about it! But now that he’s passed away, me and some others want to get back to talking with Akashi-san and see if he might be open to a wider release or distribution at some point (e.g. with the help of Discotek who sort of specialize in this type of lesser-known thing and may be interested too…) Or even doing a re-release of the BD someday, or seriously submitting it to festivals for screenings abroad, and so on. Films are meant to be seen, after all, I believe! It’d be pretty sad if it’d just stay like this forever.

      So, you never know, someday it might be available and you could see it in the US! I hope, at least! I’d encourage you to try to reach out too (the official Twitter account is @chibineko_Tom) to let them know the demand is there!

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