Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest (Atagoal wa neko no mori, 2005)

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Those film fans familiar with Japanese anime know that these full-length “cartoons” very often are anything but kids’ stuff; the bulk of anime that buffs view are very adult tales on serious subjects such as nuclear war. Fortunately, the Japanese anime world has plenty of room for all ages. It’s great to see the CIFF program the very family-friendly Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest, based on a popular manga, and show it at a time suitable for children. At the screening I attended, a mom and dad brought their two young children to enjoy the story of a fun-loving cat and his adopted son, and how they saved the world.

The film opens with an entire village of cats and a few humans attending a rock concert starring Hideyoshi (Kôichi Yamadera) and his Full-Belly Band. Hideyoshi is a fat cat who likes nothing better than to eat (especially tuna) and play. At the end of a rousing, colorful production number, Hideyoshi snatches a couple of tunafish and uses his giant zeppelin, shaped to look like him, both to elude the villagers who are chasing after him and basically smash up the immediate area. He seems to be able to fly without assistance as well and dives into a nearby body of water.

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His human friends Princess Tsukimi (Aya Hirayama) and Tempura (Asahi Uchida) go off to find him, muttering understandingly that Hideyoshi thinks he’s livening up this yearly celebration with his destructive ways. They find him at the water’s edge with a sealed chest sitting next to him. He’s sure it has food in it and wants to get into it as soon as possible. Just then, Gilbars (Seiichi Tanabe), a heroic-looking cat with great powers, comes by and senses evil. He tells Hideyoshi that he must never open the chest. “If you tell me not to do something, I simply must” says Hideyoshi, who succeeds in prying open the chest. Out comes a pink cloud that slowly forms into the beautiful Pileah, Queen of the Plants (Mari Natsuki). Hideyoshi demands tuna as his reward for freeing her, but she says she has a reward for everyone. She sings a beautiful song, and all the villagers start floating and dancing, feeling a sense of perfect peace.

Hideyoshi’s search for food separates him from the rest of Atagoal. He comes upon an object that looks like a prickly pear. It suddenly grows arms, legs, and a head with a crown of sprouts on top of it. The object tells Hideyoshi that he is not food but rather a creature with a long name Hideyoshi cannot pronounce. Hideyoshi renames him Hideko (Etsuko Kozakura). Hideko chooses Hideyoshi to be his father, even though the fat cat doesn’t know what a father is.

What Hideyoshi doesn’t realize is that he has unleashed a force that will destroy Atagoal and the rest of world. Pileah seeks perfect order and harmony, and to accomplish this, she spreads her seed all over the world, creating copies of herself and turning all the other creatures into flowers. Once they become flowers, she eats their life force, thereby renewing herself. Hideyoshi also doesn’t realize that his new “son” is actually the King of the Plants, the only being that can stop Pileah.

I found it interesting that the usually ecologically solid Japanese animes would look at plants as possible destroyers of the world. But indeed, the plant kingdom does contain its tough guys, such as the Venus flytraps in which Pileah intends to execute Hideyoshi and his friends.

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Hideko is a completely delightful creation, tiny bodied and tiny voiced. Watching him pit himself against the gigantic Pileah was very funny. His love for his chosen father, Hideyoshi, was unshakable, and Hideyoshi’s devotion to him was sweet. I got a little tired of Hideyoshi always grubbing for food, and the story was fairly disjointed. But visually, this anime is stunning, and the music was nice and singable for the kids.

I can’t say that this film is first-rate anime by adult standards, but it has a lot going for it. Families looking for something a little different should definitely check out the cool cats of Atagoal. l

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