The first and most exciting thing I learned from the special features on my Mr. Stain on Junk Alley DVDs is that “Popee the Performer is the famous pop-culture hit that took Japan by storm in January of 2000.” The knowledge that Popee was a commercial success – a “smash hit” that established creator Ryuji Masuda as “a renowned 3D animation director” – has by itself justified the $15 I spent on a used copy. However, within the 110 minutes of bonus content that accompanies this 120-minute series, there was a much more interesting tidbit: an interview with Masuda himself, in which he discusses what his creations – Popee and Stain – mean to him, and answers some surprisingly dark questions about the shows. Two of his responses in particular were quite striking to me: his answers to questions about Stain’s tears and the meaning of the violence in each show. Like I said, some surprisingly dark questions.
For those unfamiliar with Masuda’s work, he deals in surreal, dialogue-free series of short 3D animations, and is most known for Popee the Performer and Mr. Stain on Junk Alley. I have already made clear in an earlier post that Popee is pretty much The Greatest Show On Earth. Mr. Stain, meanwhile, is to bittersweet melancholy what Popee is to terrifying hilarity. Both contain copious amounts of Looney-Tunes-esque cartoon violence and logic, but are presented with far more heart than a Bugs Bunny cartoon could regularly muster. It’s definitely an acquired taste – it takes some time to become accustomed to the rather rough CG and unrestrained cruelty of each show, but for those who can overcome those barriers, the rewards far exceed any early misgivings. If you’re willing to go into them bearing this in mind and embrace the strangeness, I would highly recommend them both.
“[A] sense of shock is common in eating scenes in Popee and Stain,” Masuda notes during the interview. “You don’t feel like they’re enjoying their food. Characters really love their food in Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, but not so much in my works.”
In the case of Mr. Stain, this is especially apparent. Stain is a homeless man living on the streets of the show’s unnamed city, so eating and searching for food is a very important part of his life. Around half the episodes center on some scene of Stain acquiring food. Donuts appear to be the go-to choice for sating his hunger, but donuts don’t grow on trees, and when you’re in Stain’s situation, sometimes you’ll have to make do with what you can. The food episodes are a very direct and harsh reflection of the show’s theme of sacrifice, as when he cannot find a donut to enjoy, Stain is forced to make a meal out of the “new friend” introduced earlier in the episode. Stain’s most substantial meals are ever-laced with guilt and loss, as his tears salt the now-delicious remains of his once-living companion.
“Stain’s tears are especially striking,” comments the interviewer, to which Masuda replies, “I was especially particular about his tears. I probably fashioned them after my own childhood feelings. I would always feel guilt about eating meals when I was little. I wonder if those are the same tears.”
Food has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was once a living thing. Stain pushes this point to its extreme by making that living thing an established character over the course of the episode – and on top of that a tragic figure, for whom becoming a meal is the inevitable peak of their character arc. But these scenes do not push the unrealistic and counterproductive idea that because something had to die for your meal, eating in itself is a source of guilt and shame. Rather, this device is used to convey a more positive, if bittersweet message – there is a sense of purpose and meaning to the eating scenes, as though by making a feast of his animal friends, Stain is acknowledging and honoring their sacrifice. It is less a reflection of Masuda’s childhood guilt towards eating, and more a reflection of what he identifies as his more present source of guilt: “When I don’t eat all my food, it makes me realize those vegetables and animals died for nothing.” It’s about appreciating the food we have and the sacrifice that was made such that we might have it.
Heavenly Fried Chicken
Possibly the most profound example of this is episode four, “Heavenly Bird”, in which Stain finds a caged bird and prepares to cook it. The bird frees itself, and when Stain tries to chase it down, he falls, only for the bird to come back and save his life. He cares for it through the harsh winter until it succumbs to the cold. Through his grief, Stain beheads and cooks the bird and enjoys the meal he had originally planned to have, shoving his face full of poultry as he mourns his great loss. It’s incredibly heartfelt, and an excellent showcase of Masuda’s claim that “[While] Popee’s violence is basically just for show, Stain’s violence happens more for a reason.”
He goes on to reveal that “The staff told me that having the bird’s head chopped off was cruel. When I was little I used to chop the heads off chickens. As a kid, I didn’t have the strength to cleanly cut them off, so blood would go flying everywhere. I felt bad, but at dinnertime, it was regular old fried chicken to me. So I included my experience of chopping off heads before dinner, after giving it some serious though. It may be cruel, but that’s just how the world is.” It would seem, then, that the power of this episode comes from Masuda coming to terms with his childhood, reconciling his childhood guilt of eating with his present feelings of obligation towards his meals’ sacrifice. It would be interesting to know if there were similar stories behind any of the other episodes, but even just this is a profound look at what makes the show work in the way it does.
In the interview, there was a little sidebar with extraneous Q+A related to the primary questions being asked. Before I go on to the next topic, I’d just like to leave with you this particularly haunting piece that appeared there as he described his fried chicken experience.
Popee and Tangential Guilt
It’s pretty clear how the characters in Mr. Stain “don’t enjoy their food,” as Masuda describes, but what about Popee and company? With the exception of the excellent “Dark Side” episode, in which a vengeful Popee serves Kedamono and Papi slices of the trunk of Papi’s pet elephant, the characters seem to very much enjoy eating – Kedamono in particular loves his fried chicken (something he has in common with his creator).
As Masuda’s interview was primarily about Mr. Stain, he doesn’t go into any further detail regarding food and guilt in Popee. However, by going back and rewatching some episodes of Popee (always a pleasure) with this idea in mind, I think it’s become a little more clear.
In Popee, the lack of enjoyment of food comes from a different place. The characters in Popee enjoy the food itself, but there are frequently external circumstances that attach negative feelings to the food, including guilt. There is always some degree of remorse for eating, whether it be from the circumstances under which the food was obtained, or some horrific event that results from its consumption. In “Escape Show,” Kedamono subjects his friend Popee to alien probing in exchange for his fried chicken. In “Acrobatics,” when he eyes the chicken, he forgets about the deceased companion he had just been mourning and even steps on his body on the way to his meal. “Karate Show,” sees Popee become possessed by a frog as a result of trying to eat it. Popee’s quest for cake in the episode “In The Mind” drives him to pummel his friends repeatedly over the head with a hammer. Food comes at a high cost in Popee, and whenever anyone attempts – successfully or not – to enjoy it, it will only ever cause pain to themselves or others.
…then again, there isn’t much in Popee the Performer that doesn’t bring a horrific fate upon everyone involved. Still, while food is hardly special in this regard, it is certainly no exception from Popee’s indiscriminate distribution of pain, death, guilt, fear, and general suffering amongst its characters.
Food appears as a device for guilt in both Popee and Stain – while it may manifest itself differently in each, it does so such that it may fall more in line with the show’s general mood. This correlation is very important to Masuda, as it stems from his coming to terms with a part of his childhood. This shows through in that, where you would expect the correlation to be an expression of negativity, it is actually turned around to relay a more positive message. As Masuda says, “It used to make me feel guilty. But not now. Now I just get fat.”