by Theron Martin,

Cats of the Louvre [Hardcover]


Cats of the Louvre [Hardcover] GN
Only long-time custodians at the Louvre Museum in Paris are aware that cats have lived in the museum's attic for many generations. New custodian Patrick and tour guide Cecile learn about the cats from Marcel, an old custodian whose history with the museum extends back into his childhood. They also eventually learn about one of the greatest mysteries of the Louvre: a little girl who once went missing in the museum and was never found. One particular white cat, who looks like a kitten despite his age, may be the key to that mystery. Meanwhile, the cats have their own vibrant life, which includes frolicking outside on nights of the full moon. However, one cat, the white kitten Snowbébé, seems detached from the rest, and the black cat Sawtooth, who knows the perils of the outside world better than the others, sees Snowbébé's behavior as a threat to the carefree existence the cats enjoy in the Louvre.

Taiyo Matsumoto won an Eisner Award for his creation of Tekkonkinkreet and may also be known as the creator of the manga Ping Pong, but this most recent work from 2016 is at least as ambitious as his previous efforts. It uses the largest and one of the most famous museums in the world as the stage for a tale about the intersection of people, cats, and art.

Easily the most impressive aspect of the work is that Matsumoto clearly did thorough homework while preparing this project. The setting is awash in meticulous detail of the exterior and interior architecture of the Louvre, to the point that it even feels like Matsumoto got some kind of special access to the museum; among other things, some of the rooftop perspectives seem too detailed to have just been extrapolated. Special attention is paid to replicating some of the museum's most prominent works of art, with notes in the margins about which picture or sculpture is being shown. This release even includes two-page color and black-and-white spreads of one particular work – The Funeral Procession of Love by French painter Henri Lerambert – which is ultimately important to the plot, including versions that are slightly altered to reflect certain story elements.

Matsumoto also makes many interesting artistic choices in his portrayal of characters, some of which work better than others. The cats are always shown purely in cat form when humans are around, and outside of the backgrounds, they stand out as the most impressive illustrations. However, in the absence of humans, the cats often take on anthropomorphic forms that are stylized to reflect their personalities; Sawtooth gets a long, thin, sinister build that emphasizes his teeth, for example. One spider character that Snowbébé talks to is shown with a human head, though a dog which appears as a potential threat in a couple scenes appears purely as a dog. The emphasis placed on teeth with all of the animal characters is presumably meant to remind readers that, whatever human characteristics they may have, they are still animals who are fully subject to the more unforgiving side of nature. While violence is hardly a centerpiece of the story, animal characters do get injured and even die.

Depictions of human characters are far less interesting and much rougher visually. Children are invariably shown with rosy cheeks, while adults have more varied and defined features that seem to emphasize their noses. Crowd shots in particular can look quite rough. Given these designs and a looser sense of movement (especially for the cats), the overall visual aesthetic is significantly different from Matsumoto's other works. There are similarities in facial designs, but that's about it. The story's nature as a drama rather than an action-heavy tale probably has a lot to do with that, but Matsumoto also leaves the impression that he's striving for a wholly different message with this change in style.

The main story is not especially deep or involved, though there is more going on than may be initially apparent. The first half comes across as an anthology of vignettes about the characters and setting, but it gradually becomes apparent that all of these vignettes actually fit together as a cohesive whole. The story about Marcel's missing sister is ultimately connected to Snowbébé's sense of not belonging in the real world and his seeming ability to enter some of the paintings. The way that such an ability effectively stops time for him – for the paintings themselves are timeless – is an interesting idea that I don't believe that I've seen used in any other story about characters entering paintings. Snowbébé's time only starts for him again when he finally decides to stop seeking out the worlds of paintings and accepts the real world, which seems like a metaphor cautioning against becoming too immersed in an artificial world. Human characters, meanwhile, show how a remarkable diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints can converge in the world of art, whether it be Patrick's fascination with the immense variety of people who come to see the artworks, the tour guide who would rather appreciate the works than the crowds, the old custodian who has never been able to separate his life from art because of his sense of loss connected to it, or the stern art restorer who pops up late in the story to reveal a hidden fantasy of his own.

Viz Media is presenting the entirety of Matsumoto's work in a single hard-backed edition including a total of 432 pages. Each of its two parts begins with a color presentation of The Funeral Procession of Love, and the first part starts with four color pages. The book's binding is heavy and sturdy, with both the spine and the covers featuring vivid color art with print almost entirely restricted to a band at the top. The sparsely-used sound effects are fully translated.

The length of this work should not be intimidating, since only a handful of scenes are text-heavy. This is a remarkably quick read for its length, even taking into account taking time to study the featured artworks. While some stylistic quirks in this manga did not work for me, it's a distinct departure from the norm that readers won't have to be a fan of either classical art or cats in order to appreciate.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B

+ Gorgeous renditions of the Louvre and famous artwork, many interesting stylistic choices
Children are drawn strangely, crowd scenes in particular can look rough

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Story & Art: Taiyo Matsumoto

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