Despite its good intentions, Bagi works better as a story of a troubled young man’s messy relationship with his family than a convincingly critique of science.
Osamu Tezuka’s 1984 animated original Bagi is a fantastical dive into the potential future of mismanaged scientific research. Despite its high-concept premise, Bagi is a unique demonstration of how Tezuka’s narrative style translates into a made-for-television format. Conceived as a criticism of Japan’s research into DNA recombinant technologies, Bagi follows the journey of a young man named Ryosuke searching for a mysterious cat-like creature. Having adopted the creature as a child and calling it Bagi, he later learns Bagi was created in his absent mother’s laboratory in South America. What happens next is a classic pulpy sci-fi tale of genetically mutated animals, a weird interspecies romance, and a tragic series of misunderstandings between man and beast.
Tezuka is best known for his manga such as Astro Boy and Princess Knight. However, he also had a prolific career in animation as well, and insisted on supervising many adaptations of his work. Only four years after the premiere of Bagi, Tezuka would continue to direct more films such as a pilot of his manga Dororo and the experimental film Genesis in 1968. Tezuka’s history with animating and directing films about felines was also preceded by a film and TV series adaptation of Jungle Emperor Leo, establishing a notable fixation with anthropomorphic animal characters. This previous experience pays off well, as Bagi’s model is animated with the realistic mannerisms of a cat, incorporating much of the body language Tezuka would’ve learned while directing Jungle Emperor. However, Bagi’s cat-like appearance is mostly a novelty, treated more as a cuddly pink mascot for the film’s dark, violent subject matter.
Adopted as a kitten from Ryosuke’s mother’s lab and brought home by his father, Bagi was raised and socialized by humans at an early age. As the product of gene-splicing between humans and cats, Bagi has exceptional intelligence and later learns to walk and talk. For all intents and purposes, Bagi is just a furry human that Ryo cares for like a sister until she runs away after the public becomes increasingly aware of her. Years later, Ryosuke joins a biker gang and hunts down a mysterious “woman” they later find is Bagi in disguise, who has been hiding from humans and living in a shack. What follows is an emotional reunion with Ryosuke and Bagi, who insists they return to his mother’s lab to learn why she was created.
Bagi is certainly ambitious in its efforts to convey allegory. Much like how Disney’s Zootopia attempts to handle racial tensions with police, Bagi comes knocking on the door of scientific research with a poorly-planned message. Upon returning to his mother’s lab, Ryosuke and Bagi discover hundreds of animals being experimented on as “cyborgs” in order to test the limits of combining highly intelligent animals with machines. This scene is one of Bagi‘s most alarming, as it presents the far extreme of genetic experimentation, one less grounded in reality than it is in fantasy. The true intent of Ryosuke’s mother’s research is apparently the development of genetically modified produce such as rice—the less extreme and more reasonable extension of what Tezuka believes recombinant research to be.
Bagi isn’t quite sure what order and kingdom its metaphor is based in. While Bagi herself is the product of genetic testing on animals, the plot’s true threat is revealed by an evil government plan to use toxic, modified rice grains on unwanted political groups. It’s a reveal that seems like it should come out of left field but doesn’t—of course Bagi isn’t the villain—she and Ryosuke share too many tender moments for that to be the film’s twist. Although Tezuka begins criticizing gene recombinant research on animal subjects, his commentary ends on the far more sinister and realistic plausibility of government manipulation. It’s not evil, fantastical cyborgs animals that are the villains—but people and evil presidents and dictators instead that would exploit scientific research for political gain.
One of Bagi’s biggest problems is that it just doesn’t have enough time to truly flesh out its premise. The dynamic between Ryosuke and Bagi is tender and tense—sometimes they’re on the verge of killing each other, and cuddling in the forest the next. Their relationship is conflicted by a difference in not only species, but the context in which Bagi was conceived, as something that should’ve never existed in the first place. However, the film struggles with a rotating cast of villains that never quite makes Ryosuke’s and Bagi’s situation seem truly perilous. Among archetypes of evil scientists, armies, and biker gangs, the only true sympathetic “villain” is Ryosuke’s mother, who unfortunately pays the ultimate price for keeping her research out of the wrong hands. Her death is tragic and unexpected, but also causes the final split between Bagi and Ryosuke, who won’t be seeing each other again for some time.
Bagi’s achronological narrative framing is one of its most unique innovations, likely a byproduct of Tezuka’s work in experimental animation. The film’s opening sequence depicts Ryosuke and his sidekick Chico waiting by a cave for Bagi’s appearance. It’s been five years since the events of the laboratory and government run-in, and Ryosuke’s made a name for himself as an experience hunter. The film slides effortlessly in and out of these shots of Chico and Ryosuke waiting as Ryosuke tells him the story of Bagi’s origin. Once the events have caught up to their current situation, Ryosuke and Chico capture Bagi and let her escape in the night, never to be seen by humans again. This ending is unsurprisingly anticlimactic, as most of the action happens in flashbacks rather than progressing the relatively short span of time the present tense occupies in Bagi.
A far more appropriate theme for Bagi would be found family rather than a critique of DNA research. Bagi, much like most of Tezuka’s work, is a product of its time and shouldn’t be entirely judged without context. However, it’s hard to watch Bagi and see how tumultuous Ryosuke’s relationship with his parents is and not question his closeness to Bagi. I feel as though Bagi would be a strong compliment to more recent series such as My Roommate Is A Cat when it comes to animal/human friendship. Family bonds prove to be far stronger than mutated chromosomes in Bagi, and certainly much stronger than the ominous message of government meddling in the sciences. Despite its good intentions, Bagi works better as a story of a troubled young man’s messy relationship with his family than a convincingly critique of science. In the end, Bagi is sentimental and at times shocking, but inevitably falls flat when reading it as anything else but a pulpy family tragedy from the legendary Tezuka.