Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Chi's Sweet Home
by Jason Thompson, Feb 28th 2013
Episode CXXXIX: Chi's Sweet Home
If you ask a random American non-comics-reader to describe 'comics,' chances are they'll either think of superheroes or funny animals. (Or both combined, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) In Japan, essentially, the shonen manga are the superheroes, but what about the animals? It seems like there aren't that many animal manga in Japan…that is, once you take away the stories about monster summoners, animal trainers, veterinarians, people with cat ears and people who transform into animals, etc. Let me rephrase: there aren't many animal manga where humans aren't the real main characters. Where are the manga from the animals' point of view?
Actually, there are quite a few pet manga. A few years ago there was a mini-boom in pet manga, mostly published in specialty magazines, so if you like cats, just pick up (say) Nekodama magazine and you know what you're getting. But pet manga is a niche market, perhaps simply because pet ownership isn't as common in Japan as in the US. Few pet manga are big enough to be made into anime, merchandise, etc., and only a few break out into the mainstream magazines, such as Konami Kanata's Chi's Sweet Home, which has been published in Morning magazine since 2004. It's been adapted into a successful anime, and it's probably the most popular pet manga currently being drawn in Japan.
Chi, a little gray kitten, gets lost one day when her mother and siblings are on a walk outside. She wanders around, getting more and more lost, until she's so exhausted she slumps down on the grass in a field. Luckily, Yohei, a little boy, finds her and tells his mother. They pick her up and take her back to their apartment.
When Chi wakes up, she's startled to be in an unknown place. At first she keeps running up to the front door trying to get out ("I gotta go home!"), but on the other hand she's easily distracted by food and crumpled paper and plastic bags. Mr. and Mrs. Yamada, her new keepers, don't want to get too attached at first; after all, pets aren't allowed in their apartment. But Yohei, their son, loves the cat. Yohei's the one who names Chi, by accident, by repeatedly saying "I gotta go pee" (U.S. version has him saying "I gotta go chi," but in Japanese it's oshikko, or ochikko in a kiddy voice). Chi overhears him, thinks he's calling her, and—presto! She answers to the name "Chi"! (Incidentally, Chi pees all over the apartment at first, but Yohei's still doing toilet training too, so it's all cool.) Gradually, Chi gets used to her new home. And gradually, the Yamadas decide that they can't live without Chi either, even if it means hiding her from the nosy building superintendent who'd evict them if they caught them with a cat.
In American newspaper comics, the animals tend to behave just like little people: Garfield, Opus, Snoopy, etc. (Peanuts got really weird at the end because Charles Schulz, the creator, suddenly started to write Snoopy as if he were a real dog, so that instead of playing baseball and taking girls to the school dance like he used to, he was obsessed with getting treats all the time.) There are manga about talking animals too, such as Kenji Sonishi's funny Neko Ramen, or Risa Ito's Ebichu Minds the House, in which the title hamster is always interfering with her owner's sex life (incidentally, Ito was a high school classmate of Kanata's; they do omake comics together at the end of volume 4). But many animal manga take a different approach: to emphasize the animalness, not the humanness, of their characters. A good example is Makoto Kobayashi's sketch-comedy manga What's Michael?. What's Michael? plays the animal-human gap for absurdity, with lots of stories in which cats in human clothes are doing some serious human thing, and then they get distracted from the plot by licking themselves or by a movement in the bushes. (Random fact: the first google search suggestion for "What's Michael?" is "What's Michael? Jordan wearing?")
Chi's Sweet Home, while very different from What's Michael?, is a bit more of the second type of pet manga. Chi is adorable, but she's an adorable animal, not an adorable person. She's often confused. She lives in the moment and has a poor memory. She loves hunting prey, although she's not very good at it. And although she's got a sweet personality, once in awhile, she gets angry (like when she has to go to the vet) or possessive. Here are some real cat things that Chi does:
(1) Clawing Mr. Yamada
(2) Biting Mr. Yamada
(3) Kneading while cuddling (factoid: because this is how baby cats get their mother to produce milk)
(4) Rubbing her scent all over everything
(5) Peeing on things
(6) Eating rotten food she finds in the street and barfing all over the house
OTOH, here are some real cat things that Chi doesn't do:
(1) Licking her own crotch
(2) Humping pillows (this is more of a dog thing, perhaps. And an otaku thing)
(3) Drooling while cuddling (factoid: because they're thinking of all the delicious milk they're going to get from you when they knead you! Drooly cats: the ultimate sign of affection!)
(4) Bringing home dead mutilated animals
(5) Eating her own young (OK, admittedly, this is rare enough that you could say that only evil cats do it)
As someone who grew up with pets, it's fun seeing a pet story where pets behave mostly realistically. As the story goes on, we meet other cats, beginning with a big scary black cat. from next door. The black cat sneaks into the house one day and steals Chi's food—but he also grooms her fur, since like any responsible adult cat, he can't stand to see a little kitten who's messy. The black cat becomes a mentor, who teaches Chi how to open a screen door, how to climb trees, and how to hunt ("You need to suppress your aura"). But there's one thing he can't convince Chi of: that she's a cat. ("Chi's like mommy, daddy and Yohey. Chi's not a cat!") Later Chi meets Alice, an elegant Scottish Fold, and Cocchi, a stray cat her own age who lives in the park.
Unlike Chi, the other cats don't talk in baby talk, and they generally seem less scatterbrained; Chi's ADD is partly just her personal thing, and not quite a comment on cats in general. A wordless story about non-talking cats wandering around through a perpetual haze of smells and impressions would probably not be very easy to write, or very fun to read. But there's parts in Chi that are very specifically catty, and also very sad; the sadness of being an animal who's little and often powerless and doesn't understand the world. When Chi's family moves to a new apartment, Chi is confused by the unfamiliar sights and smells. When she hides inside the sock drawer and someone shuts it without knowing she's there, it's suspenseful, or dare I say scary? And biggest of all, there's the sadness that Chi has lost her mother. At first, she just wants to go home to mommy, but midway through volume 1, she forgets her mother and thinks she's been with the Yamadas her whole life. (My wife and I also own a dog who was a stray; I tell people that when we found her she had amnesia and couldn't tell us about her past.) When Chi settles off to sleep in Yohei's arms, it reminding her of cuddling with some big warm furry thing, but she doesn't even recognize the memory anymore. The big unanswered question in the manga is if she will ever be reunited with her mother. (Another question is whether she will ever grow up: I know this manga operates on Sazae-san time, but so far, she's been a kitten for 9 years.) In her deepest dreams she remembers her mother, imagining herself turning into a drop of water and melting blissfully into the rippling pool of mama. This is the first time a cat comic has ever reminded me of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Show me an American cat comic that has mono no aware, and I'll give you a prize.
Morning, where Chi runs, is a magazine for adults; the other manga, unlike Chi, occasionally have R-rated material. Presumably, Chi is intended for adults to both read to themselves and share with their kids: the 8-page, full-color stories are very child-friendly, and would also be a good starter manga for non-manga-fans. (That's probably why the American edition, published by Vertical, reads left-to-right.) The painted art is pretty, with nice attention to things like the streetlamps at night (volume 6) or the light of the summer sun shining through the windows. Funny, simple, bittersweet, sweet, like a good children's book, Chi has elements that both children and adults can enjoy. It's a great family manga, and a fun attempt to imagine what it might be like to be a cat.
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