House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
There are so many manga about people partnered up with monsters, dragons and so on, you'd think there would be more manga about people partnered up with real-life animals. Are ordinary pets too boring when you've spent hundreds of hours raising Pokémon? Maybe seeing real animals get into life-or-death fights causes unpleasant associations of Michael Vick rather than How to Train Your Dragon. Or maybe it's frustrating because real animals rarely know exactly what you're thinking and follow your commands intuitively like in games and films. Does the media promote unattainable standards of animal trainability?
Luckily there is at least one good manga about a mystical bond between people and real animals and it is the manga adaptation of Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose…no, sadly that doesn't exist, but until then there's Yuji Iwahara's Cat Paradise. Iwahara is an amazing artist whose style is instantly recognizable with his lack of screentone, his bold linework and his organic design sensibility (more like Western comics than most manga) where everything in the manga—characters, monsters, backgrounds—looks like a unified whole. His translated manga include the Lilo and Stitch-ish animal adventure Chikyu Misaki, the postapocalyptic survival action manga King of Thorn, and the fantasy battle manga Cat Paradise, the only one of the three still in print.
Yumi is excited to go to school at prestigious Matabi Academy, because it's got a special rule: the students can keep cats. She brings along her beloved cat Kansuke, a scarred young Tom who's been her best friend ever since she found him as a stray bleeding in the street. They get along great, except when oblivious Yumi tries to make him wear the cat sweaters she knits. “I'm a cat! I have my own fur!” Kansuke complains…but Yumi can't understand cat language, it's all just meowing to her.
Upon arriving at the secluded boarding school, Yumi instantly meets and crushes on Akifuji, a boyishly handsome upperclassman with a curiously languid air. Unfortunately for her, she soon discovers that EVERYONE loves Akifuji: he's the great-grandson of the school founder, AND a member of the student council, all of whom are super hot (male and female)! Yumi's smitten but shy. Meanwhile, Kansuke cares more about fighting the local cats to prove his worth, but he also cares about his owner, and in his feline way, he wishes he could make her happy when he sees her hopelessly falling in love.
But there's more to Matabi Academy than meets the eye. Strange things lurk in the corners of the school, and the cats know more than the humans…Matabi was built 100 years ago over a shrine which seals the life force of Kaen, the nekomata, the ferocious cat spirit beast! 1,000 years ago, Kaen was sealed away by Princess Kirihime, and soon the time will come when the seal is broken and Kaen—and his allied spirit beasts—will be unleashed upon the world. Luckily, there's a surprise (if you've never read a manga before): the student council all have supernatural spirit powers and they work together with their cat partners to protect the school! Soon, the ghost of Princess Kirihime appears before the bewildered Yumi, and awakens her powers: the power to understand the language of cats, and with Kansuke's help, the power to fight and change the world.
Respect it: Cat Paradise is a psychic-superhero battle manga about cool people in school uniforms who fight monsters with the help of their psychic talking cats. The key to this working is that Iwahara's cat artwork is GREAT; the cats both look (1) like characters with emotions and expressions and (2) like cats. This is harder than it seems; I always think of Iggy, the dog in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, who first appeared drawn as a truly weird-looking bug-eyed Boston Terrier, but apparently this was too disturbing for the readers, so he went away for several volumes and came back later with a face like a little human with dog ears. To use an opposite example, the photorealistic dogs in Inubaka are cute, but they don't look like characters; they look like Instagram dog shots. Iwahara pulls off the tricky balance of giving “manga-isms” to a cat's face while making them still look catlike and individualistic.
And of course, there's tons of cats to get to know! Kansuke, our protagonist's cat, is basically a shonen manga hero in cat form (“I swore by this scar on my head, I'll never lose!”). Musashimaru is a big fat Persian cat, whose owner, Kotori, has the power of magic cooking: when Musashimaru eats her special manju or shish kebabs, he turns into an enormous hulking cat-monster. (I think any person who owns a 30+ pound diabetic cat desperately wishes their cat had this power.) Lime, a sleepy Scottish Fold owned by shota-looking flirt Tsukasa, has the power to trap his opponents in a mystic dreamworld. Yamato, the student president's cat, can summon a mighty sword, and Sakura, the purebred white cat owned by Akifuji, can manifest as a bow and arrow; lovesick Yumi is a little jealous of the affection Akifuji gives her. Long-haired Aoki owns Gekko, a black cat with shadow powers who can also summon a sexy shadow catgirl (though personally I had much more disturbing feelings about the sexy rear shot of Sakura, a full cat, in volume 1. Although cats don't have buttocks, they can have hourglass waists, apparently).
Yumi is welcomed by the other members of the student council and learns her own magic power: the power to knit balls of yarn into magic cat sweaters that transform Kansuke into a claw-handed, super-strong catboy in a onesie. The manga then turns into a series of battles against the spirit beasts of King Kaen: a boar monster, a spider, a wolf, a giant catfish, a dragon, a giant snake. One of the creepiest (and most talkative) is the giant fox spirit, as slithery as a snake, whose long hair is gathered from its countless victims whose hairy skulls still dangle from its body. Many of the fights take place at night or in creepy settings, where the dark shadows and old-fashioned European-style school buildings give a feeling of mystery. Did I mention they can possess students too? Conveniently, a psychic barrier surrounds the school, causing ordinary students and faculty to lose their memories so they don't run to the cops screaming about fox spirits and posting Twitter photos of giant monsters. The war soon takes on an environmental dimension: the battle between humans and spirit beasts is basically the battle between humans and animals, with spirit beasts as the representative of each species. Will cats side with humans or with the natural world? Oh, and before I forget: if Kaen is defeated, according to prophecy, the one who defeats him will get granted any one wish! (This is like the roleplaying game approach where the player-characters won't save the world out of the goodness of their heart and the DM has to bribe them with treasure.)
Super student council, secret wars in school, giant monsters who really just want to protect the environment…there's a lot of familiar tropes in Cat Paradise, and anyone who's read Naruto (hey, more spirit beasts!) or played a lot of Japanese RPGs can probably predict the twists.Another downside is the wimpy heroine: Kansuke is the real hero of the story (though Iwahara cramming in too many characters and heroes is another problem), and for most of the manga Yumi is just a damsel in distress, sitting around waiting for her cat to save her. On the other hand, apart from a little partial-nudity fanservice and some sexual harassment by Tsukasa, Cat Paradise is fairly tasteful by boy's manga standards; Iwahara just seems to be too well-adjusted to pile on the sleaze like most other manga that ran in the magazine Champion Red.
But what makes it all work is Yuji Iwahara's wonderful art, where every couple of pages brings some new delight, either a particularly neat cat shot, a great facial expression or a monster that just looks so cool. Some English publisher should really license Iwahara's current science-fiction series Dimension W, now running in the magazineYoung Gangan (since it's a Square Enix publication, I guess it'd have to be Yen Press). Iwahara is an artist I'm greedy for; I just want to see more and more of his work, even if it means he burns himself into the ground with overwork and dies young like the creator of Igaguri-kun. …No, I didn't mean it, Iwahara! Take good care of yourself, exercise, have a balanced diet and live on to a ripe old age so you can draw lots and lots of manga. They say that petting a cat will reduce stress and make you healthier. But you probably already know this.
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