Written and directed by a music and visual arts collective known as toL, "Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space" is a dark allegory and a dazzling example of Japanese anime. Although it moves between 3500 BC (Before Cats) to 1943 Verona, Italy, to Shanghai in 2032, it is set primarily in 2010, opening in Tokyo during a monsoon. The atmosphere, created by sooty, realistic sketches, is reminiscent of scenes in "Black Rain" or of the opening of a Takeshi Kitano gangster thriller.
But then the film abruptly switches to a stylized Neo-Deco look in a beautifully modulated black-and-white and shades of gray. Tamala is a venturesome 1-year-old cat -- never mind that she turns out to have been born in 1869. She looks like a feline Betty Boop, has a baby voice and has speech patterns that can sound like the Lone Ranger's sidekick Tonto -- for example, "Me no scared."
A lusty, foul-mouthed hussy, Tamala takes off in her spaceship Vanpla for Planet Q. It turns out that Tamala has actually visited 141 planets, with each one thereby falling under the control of the giant conglomerate Catty & Co., which since 1869 has plastered Tamala's image on a never-ending line of products.
It would seem that the Catty honchos are in fact descendants of followers of the ancient goddess Minerva who practiced human sacrifice and who worshipped an image called Tatla. In her image they created a robot resembling the False Maria in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." They manage to transplant a Tatla image in Tamala's subconscious, and now Tatla has come back to life to invade the subconscious of children as they sleep.
In the meantime Tamala, who had taken off for her birth planet, Cosmos, has struck an asteroid that has deflected her to Planet Q, where she encounters the bookish, shy tomcat Michelangelo and has a series of adventures. A carefree kitty, Tamala seems oblivious to the fact that Q, not as evolved as Cat-Earth, is locked in a struggle for supremacy between cats and dogs. The metropolis in Q looks much like Tokyo, but it is under martial law, and Tamala has in fact caught the attention of Kentauros, a weight-lifting macho police dog intent on devouring her.
"Tamala 2010" is actually considerably more complicated -- and murky -- than what has been outlined here and is at times hard to follow. But toL's vision of the universe is as clear as it is bleak: The urge to totalitarianism is eternal and human beings but helpless pawns in their destinies. Yet "Tamala 2010" is consistently compelling in its sheer imaginative force and the deceptively fanciful world it has envisioned.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Strong language and violence, unsuitable for children
An American Cinematheque-Vitagraph release of a Kinetique production. Writers-directors toL. Producers Seiichi Tsukada, Kuzuko Mio, toL. Character design and animation toL and Kentaro Nemoto. 3-D CG directors Michiro Tsutsumoto, Kenji Okada, Motoko Kashiwagi. Editors Kensuke Kawamura and Daishin Suzuki. Music toL, performed by Trees of Life. In Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.