Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 19th 2010
Chi's Sweet Home
Chi the kitten has been living a comfortable life with the Yamada family, but that comfort may not last much longer with the superintendent cracking down on their apartment complex's no-cat policy. Chi's round, mischievous mentor, Blackie, has been getting too conspicuous in the neighborhood, and the two cats find themselves in a pinch when the authorities finally catch up with them. Luckily, Chi has learned the art of escape, and the Yamadas are also doing their best to keep her hidden. But Blackie's fate proves that they won't be able to hide Chi forever. Will Chi have to move out to Hokkaido to live with the Yamadas' relatives, or is there another solution that will allow her to stay with her family?
Life is nothing but a series of goodbyes. That seems to be the wistful worldview of Chi's Sweet Home's third volume, which takes a poignant turn as it tackles the subject of separation. Even though it's an established fact that Chi is something of an "illegal resident" at her current address, the events in this volume still bring about some dramatic changes that few will see coming. Most likely that's because the first two volumes have been so light and innocent in their execution that when something really serious happens, it makes the impact that much deeper. Audiences everywhere have been willing to play and laugh with Chi. But are they ready to face an uncertain future with (or without) her?
This is not to say, of course, that the latest story arc has suddenly gone all 20th Century Boys on us. No, there's still plenty of feline frolic for those who like their cat manga to remain just plain old cat manga. Early on there's yet another filler-chapter where Chi jumps around for 8 pages craving attention; several times she goes on outings with Blackie to learn the ropes of true cat behavior (like peeing on things to mark one's territory). There's even another gimmicky episode where Chi, through some combination of luck and acrobatics, miraculously hides from the superintendent's watchful gaze. In retrospect, though, even these lighter-than-air moments are all carefully setting up a mood swing that happens right around midway through the book.
Of course, observant readers may have noticed the first hint a little earlier, when the Yamadas' relatives from Hokkaido stop by. At the end of the visit, the aunt casually mentions: "If anything happens, we can take Chi [home with us]." And at that moment, the wind begins to change—the thought of Chi's absence enters the heads of the Yamada family. The storm hits at full force just pages later, when the superintendent finally spots Blackie and Chi in plain view, leading to the most action-packed sequence yet in the entire series—a tense, neighborhood-spanning chase that brings Chi and her family closer to being caught than ever before. Suddenly it's not a cute sitcom gimmick anymore. Suddenly it's a choice between your housepet and your home.
It's surprising how much love humans can muster for a domesticated animal. Doubly so for a stray that was picked up off the street. The last few chapters of this volume are all about that love, showing the heart-wrenching side of owning a pet—especially one that's not even allowed to be there. Some of the last few scenes are striking in their emotional depth: a dream sequence where Chi has moved away, Chi longing to escape the apartment's tense confines, the friendship between Blackie and Chi taking a shocking, irrevocable turn. What was once a frivolous tale of a silly cat doing silly things has finally become something more.
Despite this shift in mood, the artwork remains consistent throughout, with Konami Kanata's illustrations remaining just a couple of notches above gag-manga level. The dot eyes and geometric mouths take hardly any time to draw, but really, it's the overall shape of the characters that makes them so distinguishable: from Chi's tiny frame to Blackie's roundness to the archetypal figures (father, mother, son) of the Yamada family. Warm shades of watercolor also make it easier to follow the visuals, highlighting the characters and backgrounds in color without overpowering the page. The rectangular paneling and straightforward layouts are well-suited to the series' slice-of-life pace, although this turns out to be a hindrance during the chase scene, which ends up rather blocky and stilted because action shots just don't fit the format. On the other hand, the poignant events of the later chapters mesh beautifully with this style, as heartbreaking pauses and silences illuminate the idea of a life without Chi.
Simplicity is also the guiding principle behind the script, with lines so short and to-the-point that even young children could easily pick up on this story. The English translation takes a few liberties with Chi's "baby talk," but that particular speech pattern isn't too distracting, and her essential personality—especially the way it contrasts against Blackie's—still shines through. If anything, there might be more concern over the manga being flipped so that it reads from left to right, but "preservation of art" arguments aside, this switchover doesn't affect the readability of the story. The volume is also devoid of any cultural or language notes, but the story itself is so accessible and culture-neutral (there's even a box of KFC in one scene) that it doesn't need them anyway.
Those who were not entirely sold on the first two volumes of Chi's Sweet Home may finally find the clincher in Volume 3, which brings out the bittersweet side of owning a pet. Even readers who don't keep an animal companion will surely understand the emotional challenges in these pages: the anxiety of separation, the guilt of hiding a secret, and the sometimes fleeting friendships that change us forever. And it's not just the Yamada family's situation that highlights this, but also the bond between Chi and Blackie that illustrates the series' emotional range. Some folks may have come to Volume 3 expecting some cute cat antics, and to an extent, that expectation still holds true. But after everything that's happened, they will be waiting for Volume 4 expecting far, far more.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Surprising turns of plot and simple, appealing art combine to tell a poignant story of the bond between pets and owners.
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