In a small South American town on the outskirts of the Amazon, sharpshooter Ryosuke Ishigami (voiced by Kazuhiko Inoue) and his kid sidekick Chico (Kazuteru Suzuki) ride into the jungle to track and kill a near-legendary monster that has been attacking villagers. While they set their trap, Ryo tells Chico the story of how back in Japan the mutant cat-girl Baghi (Saeko Shimazu) was once his childhood friend. At age fifteen, estranged from his mom and living with a hapless single father, Ryo ran wild with a biker gang. One dark night the delinquents harass a shapely female stranger who turns out to be half-cat/half-human and slaughters everyone, except for Ryo whom she recognises as the boy who raised her from an abandoned kitten.
A tricky flashback within a flashback shows how growing up with Ryo, Baghi revealed some surprisingly human traits: eating food with a knife and fork, reading books, and practicing aerobics from the TV! Now reunited, Ryo resolves to help Baghi uncover her origins. They follow a trail that leads to a secret research laboratory where cruel, corporate backed scientists are fusing animals with machine bodies. It transpires Baghi is the sole survivor of a genetic experiment endowing her with super-speed, strength, intelligence and psychic powers which enable her to bend people to her will. A project masterminded by none other than Ryo’s mother, Dr. Ishigami - a ruthless gene-engineer with a god complex to match her towering beehive hairdo.
Tracing Ishigami to her South American hideaway, our heroes fall captive to her sponsor, a brutal dictator (Yuzuru Fujiki) who plans to use her faulty gene-engineered food crop to poison the rebels, intellectuals and foreign powers that oppose him. Escaping prison with the aid of rakish soldier of fortune Cement Bond (Katsuji Mori) - an in-joke alluding to a certain British secret agent complete with Monty Norman theme tune! - Ryo discovers his mother has been clawed to death. Suspecting Baghi was responsible, he swears revenge.
Sexy cat-girls are a long-standing tradition in anime, encompassing Cat Girl Nuku Nuku (1992), scantily-clad fan favourites the Puma Twins from Dominion: Tank Police (1988), and the adorable Meryl from the masterpiece The Vision of Escaflowne (1996), amongst countless others in what will probably continue for years to come. Where many of those anime merely indulge in fetishism, with Baghi, Mighty Monster of Nature - whose title character was named in homage to the panther Bagheera from The Jungle Book - pioneering auteur Osamu Tezuka tackles issues like animal testing, genetic experiments and the exploitation of science for warlike purposes.
Which is not to say Tezuka and his animation team don’t have a lot of fun animating Baghi, who with her languid movements, swimsuit model body and frankly gratuitous booty shots, ranks among the creator’s most flagrantly sensual characters (the other notable example being wide-eyed woman-child Marvellous Melmo (1971), who opens up a whole other kettle of moral quandaries). Tezuka flirts dangerously with bestiality by having Baghi don a dress made of leaves for an impromptu fashion show, or lovingly lick Ryo’s wounds as they lie entwined in the jungle, but she remains complex: torn between self-loathing, moral outrage and animal instinct, through which she tragically reverts to a feral state. Ryo is similarly conflicted, drawn to his childhood friend but unsettled at the idea of a monster lurking within.
Just as Tezuka’s heroes have their darker side, his villains commonly display a streak of goodness. Though ruthless in her methods, Dr. Ishigami remains human enough to be appalled when her sponsor perverts her gene-engineered cure for world hunger into a biological weapon. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley criticises her scientist anti-hero as a bad father, able to give life to his creation but unable to nurture it towards emotional maturity. Here it is a bad mother and Tezuka draws parallels between Ishigami’s callous abandoning of her son and her hasty desire to sweep Baghi under the carpet. This encompasses a fairytale wicked stepmother reference when Dr. Ishigami imprisons Baghi behind a sliding mirror that opens on the command “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”
Typically for a Tezuka production, this skips from comic to horrific and action-packed with an array of avant-garde and broadly humorous flourishes. A cuddly cartoon amoeba pops up to explain the wonders of D.N.A. in a science film that prefigures Jurassic Park (1993). There are unsettling sequences set in the research lab where animal heads are kept alive atop cyborg bodies. Thrilling set-pieces include the mutant cactus attack prefiguring Ryo and Baghi’s parachute leap out of an aeroplane and Chico and Ryo face-off against a pack of man-eating jungle cats. Kentaro Haneda’s mariachi flavoured score imparts a cool spaghetti western feel, punctuated by the odd bit of toe-tapping disco. It ends on an affecting note but the feel-good coda seems tacked-on.