Popee the Performer – Logical Lunacy

There exists a clown who plays with knives and swords. So dexterous and fearless is he that he can swallow these tools of death with nary an injury. But one day the clown becomes too cocky. He tosses a claymore skyward and swallows it whole. The massive blade runs through the clown, emerging from his backside. He is stuck to the ground.

The clown’s friend, a wolf, panics. He sees the fear in the clown’s eyes. The music in the background swells beautifully, highly appropriate for the harrowing situation. No matter how hard the wolf tugs on the sword, he cannot pull it from the clown’s body. Clearly there is only one solution: tie the clown’s legs to poles hammered into the ground, tie the sword to a truck’s bumper and rip it out with sheer horsepower. Unfortunately, this brilliant plot goes awry. The clown is dragged all around the circus until finally the truck crashes. The sword is magically loosened from the clown’s body, but he is furious.

The clown must have vengeance.

He chases the wolf around the circus grounds, fretfully hacking away, hoping to lop off a limb or two. The wolf desperately leaps into the air, hoping to get away, but it is then that the clown sees his opportunity. He opens his mouth wide and positions himself under the wolf, who tries to flail out of the way but is sucked into the clown’s gaping maw. Inside the clown’s stomach is a lonely pit of despair. The clown’s mouth is the only source of light, the tiniest sliver of salvation.

The wolf tries to climb out, but this serves only to infuriate the clown. He tosses the sword into the air once again and drives it through his mouth and into his stomach, piercing it through the wolf as well. The clown is stuck in place again, but he is satisfied with his bloody revenge.

The preceding scenario is from the 11th episode of Popee the Performer, “Swallower.” If it sounds terrifying, bleak and violent, well, that’s because it is. But it is also ludicrous and darkly hilarious if one has the stomach for gruesome CG characters going to any length to destroy each other in the name of fun.

What is Popee? It is a 39-episode series of CG shorts directed and written by Ryuji Masuda that aired from 2001 to 2006. However this was approved, I have no idea, but bless those who gave Masuda the money and time to create this wonderful work. It truly is a sight to behold.

The idea behind Popee is the titular clown and his friend, Kedamono, bumming around a circus, wasting time. Popee is a demented creature who whiles his days away with violent activities like chopping people in two with chainsaws, flinging knives at people and tossing bombs all willy-nilly. Kedamono is often the unfortunate victim of Popee’s violent fun. The real fun, however, doesn’t begin until the 14th episode, “Great Magic,” when the owner of the circus, Papi, joins in. That’s when Popee takes the lunatic moments of the earlier episodes and pushes them to the next level.

Pictured: The Devil himself.

Papi makes an entrance befitting his dark, evil nature. He finds Popee practicing the “chainsaw Kedamono in half” trick when he is stopped by Papi. “No,” Papi’s body language indicates. “There is a better way to do this trick.” (Nobody actually speaks in Popee the Performer until the final episode, by the way. Everything is communicated through body language and facial gestures, which makes everything all the more disturbing.) Papi proceeds to run the chainsaw through his torso — even Popee is horrified by this turn of events — and afterward, his lifeless body parts crumble to the ground. The camera then switches to a box, out of which Papi emerges. The camera then switches back to where Papi was, but now it is Kedamono who is cleaved in two.

The rest of the episode concerns Popee’s quest to violently murder Papi, just to know he can do it, with Papi always finding some magical way to insert Kedamono into the situation. I won’t reveal the climax, except suffice to say it is fucking ludicrous.

There’s one important rule to Popee that governs why the series is so great: there are no consequences. No matter what happens to Popee, his friends or indeed the world itself, everything will be fine the next episode. That frees the show to not just be as violent as it desires, but also to express that violence in absurd, impossible ways. If the show were simply Popee being a violent, evil douchebag, then it would get stale in a hurry. Wanton violence for its own sake eventually becomes dull. What keeps Popee fresh, however, is the strange level of logic in which it operates.

It’s straight up Looney Tunes, pure and simple, maybe the best example of that particular brand of lunacy I’ve seen in Japanese animation. Popee is all about taking an already weird scenario and working that to its logical conclusion. For instance, in episode 29, “Dark Side,” Popee and Papi engage in a game of one-upsmanship centered around chopping watermelons in half. To show how awesome he is, Papi tosses a watermelon in the air and chops it in half with some sort of energy attack he learned from Goku or something. But it doesn’t stop there: the episode plays with the audience’s perspective in that shot, and thus Papi’s attack not only cleaves the melon in two but also the sun itself, which bathes half the world in darkness while the other half is still alight. I won’t spoil the rest of the episode, except to say the scenario goes to very funny places and the ending is quite silly and unexpected.

That type of lunacy is what kept me watching Popee the Performer and what has me now wishing I could meet Ryuji Masuda and tell him how much I adore this brilliant show. There’s a violent, mean-spirited streak running through the series, but the core of the show is silly, clever and imaginative. It’s easy to look at the ugly CG and dismiss the series as hack crap, but there is legitimate brilliance and thought put into the show and its lighthearted brutality. The show has a knack for delving into the weirdest, most unexpected places and getting huge laughs while it simultaneously terrifies. There’s one episode, “In the Mind,” that comes off like something Charlie Kaufman would write if he suddenly became interested in violent circus folk.

Popee doesn’t attempt to mimic reality; in fact, it rejects reality and substitutes its own. The whole world is the stage upon which Popee and pals operate, and anything goes. And when even the world they have cultivated does not suffice, they can always pluck from an alternate universe, such as in the 33rd episode, “Mirror.” There are no rules. Only the imagination and twisted logic of the creators limit Popee the Performer, and honestly, that is a refreshing thing to see. Cartoons are a space where anything should be possible. Popee is a series that takes full advantage of that fact, and that is why it is worthwhile.

19 Responses to “Popee the Performer – Logical Lunacy”

  1. […] Popee the Performer – Logical LunacyAKPC_IDS += "8726,"; […]

  2. -chii- Says:

    I hope you’ll re-watch it as many times as i have! such a treasure XD

  3. fathomlessblue Says:

    I’m shocked you never mentioned a single word about the soundtrack. It’s the future, today!

  4. Popee is troublesome to rate. Its looniness is consistent with its own internal logic and at times is brilliant in the depths of absurdity it is willing to mine. But, while I understand the horridly designed cg and sound and depraved action is intentional, aren’t those things also intentional in something like Apocalypse Zero? If I wish to call myself a fair and consistent reviewer, I can’t possibly give Popee anything remotely close to a positive score.

    • The key difference, at least to me, is that Popee makes me laugh and marvel at the cleverness of its gruesome situations. Apocalypse Zero just grosses me out. It’s the same reason why I love the horror movie Suspiria and dislike, say, whatever random Friday the 13th flick you want to highlight despite both being gross, gruesome and fairly misogynist. (Not that I excuse, celebrate or ignore troublesome elements in the former, mind.) But, of course, I can’t fault anyone for being too disturbed with the violence to enjoy Popee.

      But I’m not really interested in being a fair, consistent reviewer, at least not in this space.

    • Also, and this is a serious question, what actually makes the violence in Popee more horrific than Looney Tunes or other similar cartoons? It’s certainly not the blood — the blood in Popee looks ridiculous and unreal. It’s not the actual action, either. Elmer straight up shoots Daffy Duck in the face in one of Looney Tunes’ most famous skits. There are anvils aplenty. Pretty sure a few characters get chopped up at some point, and if not in Looney Tunes, then definitely in other cartoons meant more for children than Popee. What makes the violence here any more objectionable than that?

      I guess you could say Popee pushes it just a bit further. You can see a hole in Popee’s head when he is shot at one point, among other things. Is that the line between “hilarious” and “depraved” violence? Is violence more “OK” when it’s bloodless and totally free of consequence?

      • In Looney Tunes the violence is fun and nobody gets hurt. In Popee violence is aggressive and the characters cower in the face of it. E.g. Daffy Duck just looks grumpy and makes a wisecrack when he is shot in the face by Elmer, whereas Popee is blinded with pain and rage when he is stabbed in the foot.

        • That is a fair point. Maybe through that lens, the violence in Popee could be interpreted as satirical ala Itchy and Scratchy in The Simpsons? Like, how cartoon violence would be if there were actual consequences (albeit self-contained consequences) rather than everyone going on as they were.

  5. I want the Popee theme to play at my funeral. And as soon as it starts playing, I’ll rise from my casket and throw bombs at my friends and family.

  6. Popee is definitely something else. Whether that something is a good thing or not remains to be seen, but it’s sure as hell memorable and completely entertaining in its insanity.

  7. Most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen – although I already had an innate fear of clowns so perhaps it freaked me out a bit more than it would have otherwise.

    There is certainly genius in Popee, but I just can not stomach it – it’s much too frightening.

  8. ON…MY…LIST…TO…WATCH….(I swear)

  9. About a month ago, I was turned on to Popee from a mention on a Web site — since then, I’ve watched each episode twice and even ordered a used copy of the soundtrack CD all the way from Japan — I’m in New Jersey, by the way. Something about it simply grabs me on a deeper level than most anything I’ve ever seen. Not sure why, but it does.

    My question to any who want to reply concerns the final episode: how do you interpret it? The frog states a simple and obvious fact, yet Kedamono seems devastated. Like how it ends with just the two main protagonists on the white background. Nice.

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