You can be forgiven for thinking "Gu Gu the Cat" looks like something less than what it is; judging from the preview and packaging, it's an amalgamation of several common Japanese film tropes cobbled together -- an animal tearjerker, slapstick comedy, and melodrama. And there are elements of all those things, successful in varying degrees. But first and foremost, the film is a love letter to Kichijoji. Filmed on location, the park and streets and bridges are practically a character in the film. Even in indoor scenes, Isshin Inudo (writer/director of the 2009 "Zero Focus" remake, "Yellow Tears" and "All About My Dog") makes sure that the shades are open and his location is evident. The lush greens and blues of Inogashira Park are visible more often than not, and a healthy portion of the film's action takes place on the pathways and park benches that pepper its landscape.
Based on Yumiko Ooshima's autobiographical stories and manga, "Gu Gu" follows a period in the life of Asako -- a manga writer who finds herself blocked after the death of her beloved cat Ca Va. Played by '80s pop idol Kyoko Koizumi, Asako is a thoughtful, curious, quirky woman full of mystery. When she finally decides to get a new companion (the titular kitty), her life and work begin anew and her enthusiasm spreads outward to her production staff: personal assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno) and art assistants (Mori-san Chu comediennes Miyuki Oshima, Tomoko Murakami, and Kazuko Kurosawa). Soon she meets an oddly forward and opinionated guy (Ryo Kase) that, though younger, intrigues her. The film follows the relationships Asako and Naoko pursue as well as Asako's brush with serious illness (an all-too-common element familiar to J-film fans, but in this case, drawn from the real Ooshima's diary and experiences).
Inudo has too much story to tell and not enough film to tell it in; The material may have been better suited to a miniseries or perhaps even a full-on TV drama. But credit where due: Inudo allows several stories to unfold simultaneously and for the most part refuses to spoon feed the viewer. There are chronological gaps in narrative that a lesser filmmaker would feel compelled to fill with exposition or voiceover, and tonal shifts that could not have been accidental. These don't always work, nor does Inudo's gamble with English narration by Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman -- he seems like an extraneous element introduced for no other reason than for added quirk factor. At times the film flirts with being too precious, but what does work works well enough to overcome these shortcomings. Elements of the medical tearjerker ("Crying Out Love"), animal tearjerker ("Quill") and relationship drama are all here, but while "Gu Gu" doesn't follow the strict formula for any of them, Inudo does borrow storytelling cues from each. The result is a film that fails to fully succeed as any of the above, but also sets up and then subverts expectations. Considering the painful formulaic qualities of many films of this type, Inudo goes to pains to differentiate his movie and keep the material fresh and unique, and the result is strangely, schizophrenically satisfying -- like making a dinner from the leftovers of 3 or 4 different meals, fried rice and pizza and pot roast. The tastes shouldn't work together and you probably wouldn't combine them out of anything but hunger and necessity, yet the result is a happily full belly.
There's a scene that grinds the narrative to a complete halt, a dream sequence in which Asako sits in a café and has coffee with the spirit of her dead cat Ca Va in the form of a young woman. I mention it specifically because it is the clearest and most insightful depiction of a universal wish of all pet loving people: to converse meaningfully with their pet and find out exactly how they feel about the relationship they share. The dialog here so smart and so touching without being maudlin or over the top that I marveled at it; Inudo's temptation to sentimentalize the scene must have been immense, and tissue manufacturers would have seen a spike in their profits had he done so. But despite it's fantastical nature, the scene feels true and genuinely heartfelt, a must-see for anyone who's wondered what their dog or cat was thinking all those years.
With the exception of the badly out of place Friedman, the film is well cast and charming. After 10 years of sparse film work, Koizumi had quite a year in 2008, headlining both this and "Tokyo Sonata." This role allows her to be charming, mysterious, serious, playful, deathly ill and brimming with life. It's the kind of part many actresses would turn into a study in scenery-chewing, but Koizumi gives a performance of considerable restraint and finesse. Ueno also gets to flex different muscles here, and while there are bits of the slapstick humor she uses to such good advantage in "Nodame Cantabile", she does quite a bit more. Despite being essentially a 2-year biography of Ooshima (and to a lesser degree, her friends), the film doesn't make any judgments or allow any deep insight into who she is -- it simply follows and observes and reports. There is no overarching lesson or moral, and no tidy ending. The takeaway is that life happens, and your best bet is to surround yourself with interesting people. And a pet.