Tape Test: Lily C.A.T.

[Tape Test covers notable anime available in North America only through old VHS releases. This installment looks at Lily C.A.T., released by Streamline Pictures in the 1990s.]

A 1980s anime rip-off of Alien isn’t such a bad idea. No, really, it isn’t. The anime industry spent most of that decade wallowing in a mire of detailed robots, massive explosions, slavering aliens, huge-haired women, and ridiculous visual overkill, all of which would work strangely well in the sexualized and grotesque realm of Alien imitators. An anime-washed Alien might not be any better than Deepstar Six, but at least it shouldn’t be boring. And yet Lily C.A.T. is.

Unabashed in aping Alien, Lily C.A.T. finds the crew of a deep-space freighter slumbering away a long journey. Once awakened, they’re greeted by the disturbing news that two of their number are illegally aboard. Their speculation about the stowaways is swiftly thrust aside by a larger problem: some strange virus is killing them. And there's a big lineup of characters to kill. In terms of both Alien rips and space-opera anime, Lily C.A.T. has its stereotypes covered.

There’s a blonde girl with a pet cat.

There’s an unflatteringly drawn black man.

And there’s a macho, gun-toting fellow who looks vaguely like Coach McGuirk from Home Movies.

The virus soon makes its way through the ship's ranks of profoundly bland people, absorbing them into a fanged, bloblike creature. The crew’s pared down to the Lincoln-bearded Captain Hamilton, his reticent second-in-command Carolyn, a scruffy stoner named Jimmy, the above-pictured blonde whiner Nancy, and young Japanese tough-guy Hiro. The most interesting of the bunch is Dick Berry, an Australian detective with a mustache growing out of his nose.

Countless anime of the 1980s stole bits and pieces from the Alien films, mostly in the form of Gigerian phallo-beasts or pulse rifles. Lily C.A.T. doesn’t stop there. Its spaceship is little more than an animated version of Alien's Nostromo, though the film combines the all-controlling computer Mother, Ian Holm’s android Ash, and Ripley’s cat into one antagonist: an artificial feline that plots the crew’s demise and talks to a computer screen.

The monster, however, is more John Carpenter than Ridley Scott; it’s a Thing-like aberration that swallows and mutates all of its human victims. There’s also some mild lip service paid to the idea of the captain and his sub-commander growing incredibly old and resigned due to all of their cryogenic trips through space, but it’s immaterial in a movie where everyone is dispassionate toward life in general.

One thing that Lily C.A.T. doesn’t steal is a knack for suspense. The crew’s numerous death scenes are among the most boring ever seen in the frequently banal realm of Alien thievery, as characters are simply brushed aside with no dramatic impact. A perfect example arises when Carolyn wanders up to a wall and spots the slavering Thing-beast beyond it. Then the scene ends. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy steps over to the hull of the ship and disappears with the exact same unsatisfying cutaway. Most amazingly of all, the survivors often react only with mild curiosity after their comrades dissolve before their eyes.

Then again, they probably know who's going to make it out. By the end of the film, the threat of the virus is gone, and two characters escape to a planet; not because they’re skilled or likeable or interesting, but because they’re the Japanese kid and the blonde American girl.

There’s still a certain drab competence to Lily C.A.T., as director Hisayuki Toriumi had a few well-budgeted projects behind him, among them the original Area 88. The biggest names on the whole project are the artists: character designer Yasuomi Umetsu went on to make Kite and Mezzo Forte, while monster designer Yoshitaka Amano worked with everything from Final Fantasy to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. So perhaps Lily C.A.T. wasn’t a complete waste.

In North America, Lily C.A.T. got a Streamline dub, complete with a liberally translated script voiced by actors who’d later get better work in better places. Julie Maddalena’s forced to shriek constantly as Nancy, while Bob Bergen and Michael Reynolds sound bored. Which fits Lily C.A.T. perfectly.

If Lily C.A.T. is remembered at all today, it’s because the film was aired on The Sci-Fi Channel’s Saturday Anime block in the late 1990s. Along with Demon City Shinjuku, Dominion Tank Police, and E.Y.E.S. of Mars, Lily C.A.T. introduced countless American kids to mediocre Japanese cartoons, which Sci-Fi had the temerity to call “cutting edge anime that’s pure power and sheer genius.” Lily C.A.T. is neither, and it was never seen again after Streamline folded. No one bothered re-licensing it in the decade that followed, not when they could buy sure-fire smashes like Best Student Council or UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie.

DOES IT DESERVE A PROPER DVD RELEASE? Lily C.A.T. merits the same DVD treatment as other inane, low-effort Alien “homages” of the 1980s. Like Star Crystal and Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror, Lily C.A.T. should be served on a bare-bones disc and tossed into two-dollar bargain bins across the nation. Alien fans would have their cheap fix for an evening, and anime fans of the 1990s would see just how dull Lily C.A.T. really was.

1 comment:

  1. I first saw this on the Sci-Fi Channel when they ran it on prime-time during their big anime week years ago. Even then I remember it being unoriginal and flat. I think it stands as the first anime production that I felt was just plain bad and unenjoyable on any level. Something every fan has to go through at some point.