‘Lily C.A.T’ and the Allure of Animated Body Horror
Body horror is an intricate subgenre of horror preying on the innate fear of losing bodily autonomy in an incredibly visceral way. More often than not, the cause of the bodily takeover is not from Earth, allowing for a variety of settings for the horror to unfold. Lily C.A.T—directed by Hisayaki Toriumi—is one example of the subgenre within another subgenre: space horror, combining the fears of the infinite cosmic void and the aforementioned dreads of body horror.
Although the film has often been criticized (or at least noted) as a splice/rip-off of both Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, the film profits from something the other two lack: animation. Special effects, especially well-done practical ones, can transform a man into something more than. But animation can perform feats the best makeup can’t even touch. It allows for the creation of horrors beyond man’s comprehension.
Lily C.A.T as Space Horror
The premise of Lily C.A.T is familiar to anyone acquainted with the previously mentioned films. In the 23rd Century, mega-corporation Syncam sends a shuttle of surveyors and a small crew to investigate a planet in search of mining prospects. Nearing the end of the crew’s 20-year hypersleep, the ship collects a sample of space debris that releases extraterrestrial bacteria. This was, naturally, what Syncam was actually looking for and the human crew on board were simply collateral damage.
The crew wakes up to three main issues: the deadly bacteria slowly killing off the crew, the ship being hacked, and a preemptive Among Us reference with two of the recruited surveyors being impostors. Because of the vessel’s botched security and communications, along with the rapidly dwindling crew, the threat of death and mutilation exponentially increases to the point where one of the eventual survivors, Jiro (Hiroyuki Okita), attempts suicide. Eventually, the bacteria and ship are incinerated. Jiro and the daughter of Syncam’s president, Nancy (Masako Katsuki), escape back to Earth; this may be a more uplifting ending than its supposed inspirations, but the survivors are still traumatized nonetheless.
Animation and Practical Effects
Something that both Alien and The Thing are heralded for are their practical monster effects. Nobody can deny that John Hurt’s Chestburster death is one of the most iconic scenes in horror—if not the entirety of film history; Rob Bottin’s work on the grotesque alien imposters of the latter led to Roger Ebert’s infamous review of the film calling it a “gross-out movie.”
But, as memorable as these effects are, SFX warehouses have limits. Makeup applications can only do so much to distort the human body and CGI; look no further than 2011’s remake/prequel The Thing to see how some VFX can look jarring and fake amongst the flesh and blood actors when typically underdeveloped. Live action films have to sacrifice how far they can go in their surrealism or produce surreal effects of a marginally lower quality.
Animation—especially animated horror films—bypasses the boundaries of practical limitations entirely. Illustration already eschews a precedent for realism through stylistic choices, color palettes, and character design; nobody expects a traditionally animated film to mimic reality in full. Whether this manifests in fantastical settings or simply a slice of regular life, animators can manipulate their settings and characters in any way their minds desire.
When doing animated horror, the directors and animation teams can go as unexpected and off-the-walls as they desire: bodies and everything in them can behave in any way, shape, and form. This makes body horror a perfect fit for animation because there are no restrictions to what can and can’t be done.
Lily C.A.T. and Body Horror
Lily C.A.T commits wholeheartedly to a body horror nightmare without boundaries; the monster designs from Yoshitaka Amano are the most consistently well-executed parts of the film. Arguably the most prolific sequence is when the titular cat Lily is revealed to be a robotic replica responsible for taking over the ship’s controls. Its head bisects itself and its body splits apart—revealing all its intricate biological innards—while Nancy, Jiro, Captain Hamilton (Osamu Saka), and Berry (Chikao Ōtsuka) watch in horror and disbelief.
But before the surprise reveal of the robotic cat, there’s plenty of dreadful viscera on screen. Every character’s death is drawn out and the cinematography intimately focuses on each body part forcing the audience to direct all their attention to the unfolding carnage. Representative Morgan Scott’s (Tesshō Genda) corpse is white-eyed and his lungs are so full of bacteria he looks bloated. Infected crew members have their faces split apart, shown from multiple angles, as bacteria rips through their circulatory systems leading to bodily collapse.
The bacteria itself is not bound to any earthly rules and changes its shape at will. It begins as a large pink cloud that tears through bodies like paper, but reveals its true power during the narrative’s climax as it morphs into an almost Lovecraftian spider beast. The mass moves and bulges in ways a practical monster couldn’t; it provides terrifying visuals that were only achievable through the medium of animation.
Lily C.A.T benefits immensely from its animation—the only medium that carries the monster designs and deaths effectively for its story to progress, and the defining factor that sets the film apart from all of the Alien rip-offs of the 1980s. Sure, the general plot and story beats are obviously an amalgam of Alien with a little extra inspiration from The Thing, but its complete untethering from the physical world makes the experience feel exceptionally original. The removal of practical constraints allowed for everything to be hyper-exaggerated and Hisayaki Toriumi could go buckwild on how he wanted Syncam’s sacrificial lambs to perish.
The emptiness and isolation of space add another level of despair to the over-the-top body deaths the crew (and audience by proxy) are forced to watch unfold. Lily C.A.T is also one of the first of its kind alongside Vampire Hunter D which similarly sports exaggerated gore, but takes place in a post-apocalyptic vampire-centric setting. These two films set a precedent for animation as an effective medium for horror directors to utilize: the lack of restrictions animation has on movement, action, and destruction expand the horizons for what horror can be.