Slamdance 2023 Review: Reiki Tsuno’s MAD CATS, An Endearing Road Adventure That Hails The Arrival Of A New Martial Arts Action Star
If you regularly take in Asian movies, then you can certainly understand director Reiki Tsuno’s logic and motivation of late. Citing a need for Japanese filmgoing audiences to enjoy “fun movies that make you feel happy,” it comes as no surprise that he would create a film that centers its narrative on one of the most enigmatic yet culturally beloved domestic mammals, particularly in Japan. What’s impressive, of course, is the degree to which Tsuno pulls this feat off in his feature directorial debut, Mad Cats, which screens for Slamdance this weekend.
Prefacing our story is an opening sequence host to an eerie hilltop with five women in white gowns, standing several feet apart from one another as they stare off into the windy distance. That shot is soon followed by a woman creeping down a dark flight of steps with an ax in hand, just before using it to execute one of the two men imprisoned in her tenebrous dungeon. The horrific scene cuts right to our introductory segment featuring Taka (Sho Mineo), living derelict and jobless in a trailer park, and under constant scrutiny from his caucasian English-speaking landlord about getting his life together, as well as his rent.
Upon playing a small audio cassette he has received in the mail, an unnamed woman’s voice informs Taka that his long-lost brother, an archeologist named Mune (So Yamanaka) is being held captive at the exact location where they once found and rescued a black kitten. The captors in question turn out to be a band of “monster cats” whose disdain for mankind has emboldened them to wage war on humans – specifically speaking, against unscrupulous pet shop owners, as the official logline reads in part. The unsolicited tape otherwise marks the first sign of proof that Mune is alive. Thus, the mission is simple: Find Mune, purloin a small wooden box – its contents unknown, and escape forthwith, undiscovered.
Unfortunately, Taka’s first attempt is a bust, resulting in a frenzied run for cover, joined haphazardly by a homeless man named Takezo (Yuya Matsuura) amid the carnage. Lacking the essential combat readiness they need to survive and their demise growing closer and more imminent as the cats’ armed attacks escalate, Taka and Takezo are fortuitously accompanied by a fast and lethal young woman (Ayane), whose tenacious resolve and fearsome fighting prowess, and secret stash of weapons enough for a small army, could be the key to their survival, and with any luck, Mune’s successful rescue.
Mad Cats marks the succession of Tsuno’s twenty years of film experience, working on several short film projects and other directing gigs after film school, including his 2018 SXSW and Fantasia short film darling, “Crying B*tch”. That project starred Mineo, who, with Mad Cats, saw an opportunity to headline Tsuno’s freshman feature and build off the success they shared with their previous short film. Adding to this is the momentum on which Tsuno’s new movie rides, growing the pantheon of directors out of Japan in the past decade, contributing to a gracious rollout of independent action films that only recently helped catapult names like Kensuke Sonomura and Hugo Sakamoto of Bad City and Baby Assassins fame, respectively.
With Mad Cats, the result is an upbeat road trip adventure with a ubiquitous blend of gruesome horror, comedy, dark fantasy, and Egyptian lore, topped off with a generous touch of action and martial arts to boot, and all tuned to a lively soundtrack by Yuki Hotta, and indie rock compositions by Birthday Girl and Amish Noise. The mid-movie friendship that evolves between Taka, Takezo, and our mystery girl grows on you despite the three seemingly having no real interpersonal connection with one another at first. That’s where character development comes into play, partly with Taka slowly putting the pieces together in his mind as the film moves forward, filling in most of the blanks along the way. One modifier to look out for is the occasional radio station news update, which helps set up the next chain of events as the film progresses.
Taking point for the action is actress and stunt performer Ayane in her screen debut. Her social media pages are full-up with posts showcasing her frequent action training, and she’s an absolute beast on camera, which makes watching her first acting role alongside her two co-stars all the more rewarding. Her character is mostly stone-faced and serious, with an implied suggestive air of quiet stoicism and pathos that is largely left up to the viewer to interpret. Some critics might find this worth nitpicking at as some kind of flawed acting method, but I didn’t think much of it. Ayane’s performance bounces off really well from that of Mineo and Matsuura, between physical comedy and slapstick and the more solemn moments that keep our protagonists grounded.
Peppering things up nicely is the menacing cadre of “monster cats” in question, played by a remarkable cast of actresses in dialogue-free roles that leave them plenty of space to nourish their assorted feline-Esque personas. The performances are a mix of hilarious, ferocious, and outlandish, collectively taking on the various mannerisms of cats in ways most folks are typically knowledgeable of when it comes to felines. You get the mindlessly playful, the curious, and even a little of the sadistic, and with all of these factoring into the action scenes, it becomes even more entrancing to see how Ayane and the rest of the cast live up to the task.
Women are at the forefront of the action design with fight choreographer Manfa Santo making plentiful use of the performers on hand, including in several of the film’s nearly ten action sequences. The climatic two-on-one finale featuring Ayane in a two-on-one battle against actresses Moca Kodama, and Yasuko Tsuji who also served as the film’s assistant fight choreographer, delivers a prospective first entry into the annual chatter in best martial arts action sequences of the year. It is excellently shot and lit in a way that contributes to some of the film’s more whimsical and illustrative ambitions, altogether lending huge credit to Tsuno in his aim to make a movie that lends as much joy and excitement as he intends to.
To this extent and more, the film’s reliance on practical set pieces and effects, and minimal avant-garde story techniques should serve Tsuno well here in a way that could earn him the reception he deserves on a global scale. Its target niche audience notwithstanding, Mad Cats has a little bit of something for everyone. It’s cute, funny with deadpan brilliance, full of vibrant characterization and energy, stylish and slick martial arts action with a burgeoning action star in the making. Conclusively, it also comes with a propitious core message of love and companionship between humans and furbabies alike that audiences far and wide can gravitate to.
Written and directed by Reiki Tsuno
Produced by Daisuke Urano, Reiki Tsuno and Takahiro Fukiya
Cinematography by Shintaro Teramoto
Music by Yuki Hotta and Amish Noise
Starring Sho Mineo, Yuya Matsuura, Ayane, So Yamanaka, Hikari Aiko, Michael Aaron Stone
Produced and Presented by Noadd Inc.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.