Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Start with a Happy Ending
Death sometimes comes upon us unexpectedly, leaving unfinished business behind. In each of the fifteen short stories in this volume, someone dies suddenly only to find that because of their kindness to felines, the Cat God has given them seven extra days on Earth before reincarnation. The catch? That week will be spent as a cat. Is it possible to complete your human life with a feline one?
If you haven't read the synopsis, the title of this book can be a bit misleading. Those of us raised on Disney fairy tales might assume that we are going to follow a couple post-wedding – the traditional “happy ending.” What the title is referring to instead, however, is the fact that fifteen people are given the chance to resolve the mistakes of their human lives by living as cats for seven days before being reincarnated, assuring that their lives end happily. A different take on the idea to be sure, but one that Risa Motoyama makes work.
The stories in this book are only tangentially connected, although the first and the last do use kittens from the same litter, implying that everything takes place within a limited area. In each tale, someone unexpectedly wakes up to find that they have died and now have the body of a cat. A bearded feline figure of glorious stature appears before them and explains that they are deceased, but because they either died saving a cat or were kind to cats, he, the Cat God, has granted them an extra week of life to wrap up any unfinished business. Once that week expires, they will be taken to Heaven to be prepped for reincarnation. As premises go, this one is certainly unusual, and the heavily feline theme may appear as a turn-off to some readers. However Motoyama, while definitely giving the book a cat-friendly vibe, also manages to make the stories very universal, making the book more like Inio Asano's What a wonderful world! than Chi's Sweet Home.
Each story begins the same way, but the problems the protagonists face are all very different. We meet a girl who has never managed to confess to her childhood friend, a man who never exercised and let his life just slip away, a controlling mother, a harried programmer, and a disenfranchised teen, among others, each with their own story to tell. Not all of the tales resolve in the same way, either: some people choose to be reincarnated as cats so as to immediately be with those they left behind (at the cost of their human memories), some resolve their own problems, and others use their last days to help others. No matter what the variation on the plotline, each tale has a bittersweet charm that is as likely to make you cry as to smile, or possibly do both at once. If Natsume's Book of Friends makes you tear up, there's a good chance that this will too.
The major stumbling block for Start With a Happy Ending is Motoyama's art. It certainly isn't “bad,” and in fact falls comfortably into a subset of josei imagery. What is odd is its cuteness. These aren't cute stories, although they are often charming in a sad way, and seeing the fluffy kitties and cozily rounded people discuss death and unresolved business is a bit strange. Pages are crowded with many small panels, as if the artist was used to drawing four panel strips rather than regular manga, but that really isn't a detraction. Suffice it to say that the imagery doesn't quite match the story, and that feline anatomy isn't really Motoyama's strong suit.
“To follow the entire life of just one person,” Risa Motoyama says in her afterward, “does not a story make.” Start With a Happy Ending proves that – we only follow the ends of the protagonists' lives, not privy to their starts, only their finishes. And yet by the end of each fifteen page tale, we have read a complete story, one that makes us understand the characters and hope that they can apply the lessons learned to their next lives. While it is a little worrisome that this is “volume one” - how long can Motoyama keep this up? - DMP's release of this book is a welcome addition in the field of manga for older readers. Whether you're a cat person, a dog person, or a snake person, Start With a Happy Ending is a charmingly bittersweet collection that presents snippets of people's lives and tells a variety of complete stories. This book is not meant to be read in one sitting – but it is worth picking up again and again.
Overall : B+
Story : A
Art : C
+ Touching, charming, and yet sad, the book covers a lot of ground. Never the same story twice and a nice bit of bookending with the first and last stories.
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