LILY C.A.T. celebrates its 35-year anniversary and it still shows we’ve much to learn from it
When I first started reading up on Lily C.A.T. online I came across a description of it that showed up way too often: an anime version of Alien (1979) where the monster is a cat. It doesn’t really do it justice.
The setup does resemble Alien in that it takes place in a spaceship and that there’s a foreign entity wreaking havoc on its crew. Its kind of science fiction, like Alien as well, leans more towards horror than actual sci-fi, but the movie is quick to shed that comparison in favor of something that mixes other classic movies in for a surprisingly deep story about time, the fear of becoming obsolete, and the dangers of progress. And yes, it does have a cat, but it’s no mere monster (although it can be quite frightening).
Lily C.A.T. is the creation of Hisayuki Toriumi, one of the minds behind the classic Gatchaman. Released in 1987, the movie, set in the 23rd century, follows the men and women (and cat) of space cruiser Saldes, a ship that was hired out by the Syncam Corporation to take surveyors into a new planet with unique mining possibilities. The trip reaches its destination, but before the crew has the chance to get off the ship and survey the planet, strange deaths and disappearing corpses keep them in place until they can figure out what’s caused this nightmare scenario just as they reach the end of their first 20-year cryosleep journey.
In comes the cat, a creature that might be a clone or copy (or something else) of another cat that travelled with one of the crew members. Her name’s Lily and it’s quickly established something isn’t entirely feline underneath all her fur. It doesn’t take long for a hulking monster to reveal itself, it’s presence offering part of the explanation as to why the crew is being consumed and what the cat’s role is in all this.
One of the main attractors of the movie is Yoshitaka Amano’s character and creature designs. Amano, known for his work on Vampire Hunter D, Final Fantasy, and Speed Racer, creates a monstrous mass of horror that seems inspired more by John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) than H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien. It’s a brutal manifestation of hunger that holds a certain mystery as to its killing methods and why it consumes the bodies of those it kills.
This is where comparisons to Alien stop. As the ship’s crew starts to dig into the events that are taking place on the Saldes, character motivations and trust issues start revealing deeper concerns afflicting its crew. For a movie that’s just over an hour long, there’s a fair amount of existential dialogue taking place and they range from thoughts on humanity being overtaken by technology, ideas on how time becomes obsolete when travelling in space, and the importance of fulfilling one’s duty despite being presented with the possibility very little of it matters given the circumstances. Here it veers into 2001: A Space Odyssey territory.
As the movie progresses, it becomes evident that its central computer might be seeing the monster and its biochemical components as a rare find that could benefit the Syncam Corporation’s bottom line if brought back to Earth. The crew slowly realizes that their presence at this point is mostly superfluous given the computer is capable of navigating the ship by itself and of containing the creature to certain areas for a long trip back home with the new cargo.
The realization inspires the ship’s captain, Mike Hamilton (played by Mike Reynolds in the English dub version), to reexamine his decision to dedicate his life to space travel and he sacrificed in its pursuit. He goes on to provide one of the movie’s most existentially unsettling monologues. Hamilton speaks to the price space travelers pay in terms of time, framing it as a pursuit that is appreciated on a very lonely stage.
Undergoing twenty, thirty, or forty-year time jumps for deep space travel means those left behind continue aging naturally while the traveler artificially extends his or her life span. It means travelers sacrifice a lot for a system that, at the same time, is trying to eliminate human input entirely at every turn. The insight Captain Hamilton provides in his monologue allows for a more complex type of questioning when it comes to tried and true sci-fi tropes. It leaves an impression and promotes the further exploration of genre ideas that we’ve seemingly taken for granted way too often.
There’s a subplot concerning criminals that make their way into spaceships to go on illegal time jumps to avoid arrest for serious offenses. Again, time is a factor that puts into question the entire notion of duty, especially if we think about it as something that runs on an invisible timeline we’ve never thought necessary to consider before.
These and other variations on the sci-fi formula are what make Lily C.A.T. such an impressive and important example of classic anime. Toriumi’s vision considers a profound worry for the things humans sacrifice in service of progress, especially how our limited foresight can put us on a road towards obsolescence. The movie offers a warning that’s as prescient now as it was when it came out, perhaps more so given what’s come to pass since its original release. Give it a watch and don’t get too distracted by the cat. There are other things to worry about when humans venture deeper into space.