Buried Treasure
The Star of Cottonland

by Justin Sevakis, Jun 7th 2007

Few topics within the anime community are as divisive as the subject of moe.

Actually, that's not true. Almost every issue is ridiculously divisive in the anime community. But moe is an interesting issue, since it involves taking emotions that are among the most respectable a human can have -- the desire to protect and nurture -- and fetishises those emotions.

While I'll admit the concept of moe doesn't really appeal to me, I have no problem with the genre itself -- there are just very, very few shows of the moe genre series that I find enjoyable. One of the "rules" of moe is that the moe character must be weaker than the viewer. Most moe shows involve girls who are so weak-willed and lame that it's nearly impossible for me to relate enough to have that moe urge to cheer them on. More often, I just want to throttle them.

Luckily, that's not a problem with the first clearly moe title in the Buried Treasure catalog. The Star of Cottonland, which started as a shoujo manga in the late 70's and came to anime in 1984, is the earliest example of moe I can find in anime, and our protagonist happens to be the cutest, frilliest thing I've seen in a while. She's also not weak-willed or cowardly. She's just... a kitten. Literally.


The Star of Cottonland

There are two things that are ingenious about The Star of Cottonland: The first is the concept of drawing the cats in the story as humans -- just, shorter humans with cat ears. While some might consider that obvious today, that was noteworthy back in the early 80's. As the film is portrayed from the cats' point of view, it's only fair that the cats themselves be portrayed in the way they seem to see themselves in a world of people: as people... just shorter, and with tales. The second ingenious thing is to make them still act like cats, rather than the short humans they appear to be. They take pride in their clothes (fur), have an instinctive taste for both meat as well as for solitary adventure. They are their own bosses.

The Star of Cottonland is really the story of one cat, a tiny kitten with no name (referred to throughout as Chibi Neko) who was left wandering the streets after being abandoned by her owners. Cold, soaked and passing out from hunger, she is rescued and taken in by a teenaged boy named Tokio. As Tokio nurses the kitten back to health, we see that he's been withdrawn, skipping his prep school, and trying to figure out his role in life.

His parents are eccentrics, but are genuinely worried about him. The father is a writer who's usually buried in his study, while the mother is a sickly housewife whose "allergy" to cats is more like an extreme neurosis: she doesn't sneeze or get the hives. Rather, when she sees the cat she descends into hysteria in a way only 70's manga characters can. But so worried is she for her son that she insists on keeping the little one around, despite the problems she causes. Since he got the cat, she notices, he's beginning to act like himself again.

There are a few other humans in the cast, including the thoroughly bizarre "Nekomania," a cat otaku (voiced by the late, great Kaneto Shiozawa) who can usually be seen in the neighborhood with a net trying to catch the "prince" cat -- a handsome stray that roames the area -- so that he can PUT IT IN A CAT-SIZED ROYAL PALACE AND WORSHIP IT. The "Prince" -- who's named himself Raphael, befriends Chibi Neko, and warns her that no human is worth her time or her loyalty.

Chibi Neko is fascinated by Raphael. So much so, in fact, that when the grand cat suggests they meet in the neighborhood bamboo grove, she gets lost and ends up stealing fish alongside some rough strays in the area. She wanders and explores, meets new friends, and wonders where Raphael and/or Tokio could have gone off to.

And so the story wanders, along with Chibi Neko's whims. It wanders, it gets lost on tangents, it gets distracted and goes in another direction for a while. And like Chibi Neko, it never really settles into a firm sense of purpose or place. While it would have been easy to have the kitten yearn to leap back into Tokio's arms, the film opts for a more feline approach and has her more preoccupied with finding her friend. Tokio never really occupies more than a fleeting thought for her.

As with most borderline creepy subgenres in anime, moe started out as a children's genre, and The Star of Cottonland, produced by Tezuka's studio Mushi Pro (post-bankruptcy), is clearly a family movie. As such, movies made for children have much different goals: they exist to give children dreams. This is where the film really excels; the sense of overwhelming child-like wonder at even the mundane details of a quiet suburb. The vivid colors: each blade of grass, each drop of rain are delicious in their potential. Adventure seems, for the characters as well as for us, to be everywhere.

Despite being made in 1984, it looks remarkably contemporary, and reminds one how little manga style has changed over the years; character designs could easily be mistaken for Ai Yazawa attempting an 80's period piece. 1984 was an amazing year for theatrical anime (Nausicaa, Macross DYRL), and the technical quality of Star of Cottonland, while not quite on the same level, keeps pace with those films nicely. A recent restoration was completed for the R2 release, further obscuring the film's age.

Chibi Neko herself is quite strong-willed, which comes as a bit of a shock coming from a character so closely resembling a 20-inch tall porcelain doll. She makes it clear to Tokio that, despite her appearance, she is not an object and will never belong to him, or anyone else for that matter. Clearly, the subservient fettish objects of most modern anime could take a lesson from this little cat.

The Star of Cottonland was directed by Shinichi Tsuji, whose filmography I mostly haven't seen. (In fact, the only other series he directed that I'm at all familiar with is Belle and Sebastian.) However, his other work reveals that he worked closely with the other animators who cut their teeth directing with Tezuka; half of the shows he worked on are Gisaboro Sugii productions.

The Star of Cottonland is a little movie, and by that I mean that it's restrained in its scope. It's not setting out to make some grand statement about humanity, but rather capture the capriciousness of the feline, and make us coo with cute in the process. Well, mission accomplished.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it: The region 2 DVD of The Star of Cottonland (Wata no Kunihoshi) is in print, and almost shockingly cheap for an import (¥2940, or less online). As is usually the case, there are no subtitles. While there appears to have been a French release at some point, English speakers are out of luck. For those willing, however, a high quality fansub is out there, and features removable subtitles in 8 languages.


Screenshots © Yumiko OshimaHakusenshaMushi Production.

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