There is a small fishing island in Japan, Tashirojima, which has been dubbed “cat heaven” because of the phenomenal amount of stray cats living there – there are more cats than people! It sounds, to me, completely idyllic – what could be better than walking out your front door to be greeted by a group of fuzzy lovelies hoping for your attention? Of course, the cats on this island are very much respected and revered (there is a shrine, Neko-jinja), and cats in general are a much-loved animal the whole country over.
I am a cat person. I have always been a cat person, and I will always be a cat person. And I am currently writing this with a little black cat in my lap, while wearing cat-shaped earrings and a cat T-shirt. So naturally, I appreciate the presence of cats in Japanese popular culture, and the prevalence of cat popularity in animanga. As such, I thought it would be prudent to key folks in to some of my favorite feline stars!
Everyone has heard of Japan’s most famous overseas cat, the illustrious Hello Kitty. But in 1996, twenty-two year’s after HK’s debut in Japan, Sanrio introduced Chococat, the lovable little black cat with the chocolate-button nose. While Sanrio and the Hello Kitty franchise aren’t necessarily “anime,” I think Sanrio deserves a mention here because of their presence as forerunner of the Japanerphanila (my word, clearly) onslaught of the last thirty or so years. And of course, I prefer Chococat to his older sister because…well, I’ve always had a weakness for little black cats, and Hello Kitty’s prevalence in every single store in America has caused a little bit of disillusionment for me. HK is the commercial mogul; Chococat is the adorable, playful kitten. According to Wikipedia’s tiny blurb on him, Chococat’s “whiskers are able to pick up information like antennae, so he is often the first to know about things.”
Despite not being Miyazaki’s foremost masterpiece, Kiki’s Delivery Service remains my favorite of his movies, and Jiji is a good part of the reason why (also because being a 13-year-old witch with a little black cat is STILL a dream of mine). Voiced by Phil Hartman in the original dub, Jiji is a snarky, sassy, nervous, and irritable character who definitely feels put-upon by Kiki’s teenage whims. The idea of having conversations and receiving advice from a cat was an exquisite one when I first watched this film, at about the age of seven or eight, and I can’t bring myself to watched the original Japanese version of the film because Phil Hartman’s voice has always matched Jiji’s personality perfectly.
My most recent anime-cat-obsession has been the anime Poyopoyo Kansatsu Nikki, a series of five-minute observational cartoons detailing the life of Poyo, the spherical cat, and the Satou family who adopts him. The series began airing in Japan in January 2012, and has been simulcasting on crunchyroll.com. It is a wonderful diversion for anyone who wants short, fluffy entertainment – but I think it’s especially endearing for those of us who own cats, as we can relate to many of the issues and joys that Moe, Poyo’s owner, has to deal with. This is a series that doesn’t even try to take itself seriously; it’s full of hilarious characters and generous wordplay. It’s also a wonderful way to learn more about Japanese culture, as the Satou family lives in a fairly rural part of Japan, in a traditional-style home complete with tatami mat floors and rice paper doorways.
No post by me would be complete without some mention of Sailor Moon, which is funny because I don’t even consider myself to be a very well-versed fan of the show. But Luna (and Artemis) really appealed to my five-year-old self, especially considering that while I was watching the series for the first time, my family owned a lovely tortoiseshell girl-cat named Storm (yes, after the X-Men character). As I’ve mentioned before, the English-language dub remains pretty atrocious, but Luna’s cranky British voice of reason (played by Jill Frappier) was totally delightful to a little girl who loved to play with accents. And Wikipedia tells me that Luna has been compared to a feline, female version of Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer! How apt.
[Bonus: There’s an episode of Sailor Moon, “Loved and Chased, Luna’s Worst Day Ever!” wherein Luna finds herself a kitty-paramour. In the dubbed version, this cat was called Hercules, but in the original Japanese, his name was Rhett Butler, and the episode featured multitudinous Gone With the Wind references which were cut when DIC tried to market the show for a much younger audience. Hearing the name “Rhett Butler” spoken with a Japanese accent is so very endearing, and it’s become a habit of mine to say it randomly for the sheer pleasure of the sound.]
Behold, the ever-present maneki-neko, or beckoning cat. This lovely creature, portrayed chiefly as the Japanese calico bobtail cat, is a symbol of good luck that can be seen decorating doorways from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The influence of this ancient cat figure is huge all over the world (who hasn’t seen one, really?), and it is a hugely prevalent talisman of good fortune all over Japan. There are many folktales associated with the maneki-neko, but none of them shed much light on its origins or its popularity. But it’s not just some old superstitious relic; it has had an influence on popular culture as well. A prime example would be the Pokemon character, Meowth, who was styled to look similar to the maneki-neko, and who has attack moves that revolve around money and good fortune.
These cats are only the tip of the animanga kitty iceberg. You’ll notice that I didn’t attempt to foray into the vast world of catgirls (or nekomimi). I did this for a couple reasons: While I am not necessarily judgmental of characters with cat ears and cat tails (because hey, they’re cute), I am very leery of the sexualization of young women. The unfortunate truth is that nekomimi are frequently portrayed as young, innocent girls who are playful and limber like cats, typically in harem-style anime, or other anime where there is a male protagonist with the conflicting attentions of many young women.
On the other hand, there are definite cases where nekomimi are used in a really great way. My favorite is when a character is doing or thinking of something mischievous or questionable, and they make a silly cat face – much like Botan from Yu Yu Hakusho in the image below:
There you have it: the internet loves cats, and so does Japan (and me too).
Kawaii desu, ne?