Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Cat Proposed
Souta Matoi is overworked and miserable, moments away from throwing himself onto the train tracks to just end it all. He pulls himself back, and in his wandering away from temptation finds himself going in to hear a traditional kodan storyteller. He finds himself getting oddly into the man's tales and is shocked when all of a sudden the storyteller's face seems to transform into that of a cat! It turns out that Kihachi, the storyteller, is a bakeneko, a cat yokai, and Souta's ability to see his true form means that they're compatible as mates. Can being married to a bakeneko help save Souta's life in ways he never imagined?
As far as Japanese storytelling traditions go, there's a good chance that more anime and manga fans are going to be familiar with rakugo (largely thanks to the series Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and its anime adaptation) than kodan. Like the humorous rakugo, kodan is a form of oral storytelling, but its focus is more historical or educational than funny, often taking the form of historical fiction or horror. Its practitioners traditionally sit behind a small kneeling desk and use something heavy to punctuate the story with beats, such as clappers or a weighted paper fan. It evolved from court lectures during the Heian era, and like oral storytelling traditions everywhere, it's been largely eclipsed by other forms of media, although it's had a big impact on the Japanese novel's evolution. It's also the perfect career for a character who has been around since the Edo era and who also happens to be a yokai.
That would be the eponymous cat in Dentō Hayane's The Cat Proposed single-volume BL manga. As you may know, bakeneko are a type of cat yokai. Unlike the better-known nekomata, bakeneko only have one tail, and folklore says that they're either born after a cat reaches a certain age or from a cat killed by a human who seeks revenge. Like many other yokai, bakeneko can transform into humans, and they're also known to sometimes lick lamp oil or blood. The latter is probably the best-known story about this particular yokai; “The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima” is a famous classic kodan tale, making Kihachi the kodan-telling bakeneko something less of a surprise as one of the protagonists of Hayane's manga.
All of that background information aside, The Cat Proposed is a lovely story. It follows the relationship of the aforementioned bakeneko and a human man named Souta Matoi, who is both on the verge of suicide and of working himself to death. When the book opens, Souta is standing on the edge of the train tracks, exhausted physically and emotionally, and seriously contemplating jumping. He steps away at the last minute, and begins wandering around town in a sort of daze. When he spies a sign for a kodan storyteller, he decides to go in. That storyteller turns out to be Kihachi, and during his recitation of “The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima,” Souta sees his face transform into a cat's. His shock makes his body give up the ghost and he passes out; when he awakes, he's in bed in Kihachi's house. The man explains that he's a yokai and that Souta's ability to see his true form means that they're compatible as mates – plus if they don't become mates, Souta's going to have to have his memory removed. What Kihachi doesn't say is that Souta's brain likely wouldn't survive the erasure process; when he's eventually convinced to go to a hospital, he learns that Kihachi has saved his life from an aneurism by sharing his lifeforce.
While it at first simply looks like Kihachi is the savior figure in the story, as the book goes on, we slowly come to realize that the saving really is mutual. Kihachi became a bakeneko back around the Meiji Restoration – he belonged to a family that was murdered and then wandered the streets, comforting dying children until his transformation into a yokai. He became a kodan storyteller because the father of his original family told a lot of stories, so it's become a way for him to keep their memory alive. That this then allows him to meet Souta thus provides a sense of closure for him – the stories that originally made him feel loved have now brought him a new family. Although the volume spends much less time in Kihachi's head than Souta's, this comes across very strongly and forms a key part of what makes this such a sweet, rewarding romance to read, because it shows that everything really is mutual and that despite their species differences, neither man is being cast as “inferior” to the other.
It also isn't strictly about “saving.” While both men carry sadness and destructive stress around inside of them, the implication is that it was being alone that brought them to where they are when the book opens. In Souta's case, that's much more dangerous, because he doesn't have the built-in support network that the bakeneko community provides to its members, at least in part so that they can be sure that the secret of their reality is being kept. But Souta's a single man without family, working for a company that clearly doesn't give a damn about him. He's forced into overtime, faced with ever-changing expectations, and has basically reached a point where his stress has just saturated his life. Had he not met Kihachi he certainly would have died (something Kihachi is aware of), but Kihachi's saving of him is only slightly supernatural. Yes, he shares lifeforce, but ultimately what he does is force Souta to realize that he matters. He makes him go to the doctor, take time off of work, and enables him to heal himself to the point where he can once again make healthy decisions about his life, including leaving his toxic job. Kihachi's love is the starting point for Souta's saving himself, and that's both important and nice to see.
Hayane's art isn't particularly spectacular, but it does have some very nice touches that help to make the story lovely. Once the men are a confirmed couple in the eyes of the bakeneko community, they both end up with cat and human (and hybrid) forms, with all three used to showcase different aspects of their relationship. There's also a nice use of some traditional Japanese imagery, particularly when they attend a bakeneko gathering and towards the end when they see the Night Parade of yokai legend. The story is much more focused on the emotional than the physical aspects of their relationship (with one not-explicit sex scene), and that works here, because it's what they give each other emotionally that really sells the romance.
The Cat Proposed is, quite simply, charming. Its romance is sweet, its use of kodan stories and bakeneko gives it an edge, and it really is just a nice, feel-good story. Tokyopop may have burned us in years past, but if you're looking for a sweet BL read with a supernatural aspect, this one-and-done volume is worth picking up.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Sweet story based on the characters' emotional needs, interesting use of traditional Japanese storytelling.
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