At their best, films about the future — sci-fi, fantasy and anything in between — offer up mind-expanding speculations and deep-drilling allegories, if not necessarily accurate predictions. Hardly anything in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” came to pass by 2001, but its vision of something out there continues to haunt us.
But what if you have only a tiny fraction of Kubrick’s budget, translated into today’s yen? Then you have to rely on imagination and chutzpah, as did Daisuke Nishijima, who created the comic that served as the basis for the wacky, sweet, pitch-dark sci-fi/fantasy “Sekai no Owari no Izukoneko (The End of the World and the Cat’s Disappearance).” An award-winning sci-fi manga artist, Nishijima not only co-wrote the script with director Michihiro Takeuchi, but stars in the film as the nerdy high school teacher Miike, despite a seeming blank spot in the “acting experience” section of his resume.
Screened at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in February, the film stars idol singer Izukoneko (aka Mari) as Itsuko, a girl in Miike’s class who has a sideline as a budding star on the 2035 equivalent of YouTube. As she sings, dances and muses for the webcam in her bedroom, comments from fans flash all over her futuristic transparent computer screen (that no doubt drove the film’s poor subtitler mad).
All is not well in Itsuko’s world, however. Years ago a pandemic emptied out Tokyo, which is now a no-go zone, and fleeing residents built a replica of the city in western Japan’s Kansai region. (One of the film’s cleverer visual jokes is a shot of “New Tokyo” that is simply a street scene in the present-day Shinjuku district of Kabukicho.) Even worse, a giant meteor is scheduled to strike the planet and end life as we know it in 10 years. What’s a girl to do?
Itsuko has a vision — or is it a glimpse into an alternate reality? — of stopping the meteor with her bare hands. Then, in a barren concrete industrial wasteland she encounters two odd girls in skimpy get-ups: Rainy (Momoko Midorikawa) and Irony (Ako Nagai) from the planet Jupiter. They tell Itsuko she has special powers, and make her an offer I won’t detail here, save that it involves the salvation of the planet and requires the skill set she developed entertaining the Internet masses.
Meanwhile, a creature of urban legend — the half-girl, half-cat Izukoneko — is spotted frolicking in the ruins of Tokyo, in blithe disregard of the deadly toxins still lurking about, as a frantic TV newscaster keeps reducing the meteor’s scheduled date of arrival, down to the two day mark. Despite the bad news, Miike stubbornly urges his mostly indifferent class to keep hoping and striving. And at home, Itsuko’s wild-haired songwriter dad (played by pink film director Shinji Imaoka), rendered mute by the trauma of the pandemic, struggles to write songs, while her beacon-of-stability Mom (Rumi Shishido) patiently interprets Dad’s thoughts for his not-always-understanding daughter.
Given the zero budget, found sets and unknown actors — some of whom are either amateurs or next to it — “The End of the World and the Cat’s Disappearance” looks and feels something like a student-made genre parody, whose gags are funny only to the participants. But just as it begins to float into the silly-sphere, the film delivers a bit of dialog or action that sends it to another pointedly observational or poetically metaphorical level.
Instead of panicking as the doomsday clock winds down, the kids in Miike’s class carry on pretty much as kids do anywhere, with more than half in the head-against-desk position. One, Itsuko’s good buddy Suko (Jun Aonami), mounts a quixotic one-woman protest campaign, but no one, including Itsuko, is tempted to follow her. “You don’t live forever,” Suko says. “It’s important to accomplish something.” Hard to disagree with that, even if it’s hard to see what she is accomplishing.
And as Itsuko grapples with her scary alien-assigned mission and spooky identity issues (sparked by the unsettling resemblance between her and the Izukoneko) she keeps stoutly mugging and warbling away for her anonymous, if outspoken, fans. This may be the first movie I’ve seen that makes idol-ing look heroic.
In fact, if the film has a message, it’s that when all looks black, we’ve got to bravely — if futilely — keep on keeping on. And when two sexy Jovians ask us to participate in an interplanetary breeding program, we’d dang well better listen.
Fun fact: The producers of “Sekai no Owari no Izukoneko (The End of the World and the Cat’s Disappearance” raised ¥4.6 million on the crowd-funding site Campfire to make what they described as “the first and last film starring Izukoneko.” The originator of the project was music producer Ken Sakura, who launched Izukoneko and supplied the film’s music.