The Mike Toole Show
The Cat's Meow-nga
by Mike Toole,
I'm a cat person. I've always had cats around-- and in fact, seven years ago this week, my wife and I made a trip to the SPCA to get our current pair of cats, Roku and Nana. (Yes, my cats are named 6 and 7. My previous cat, a temperamental Maine Coon, was named Go, or 5. Look, don't make me have to get creative about naming, okay?!) This is not to say that I'm not a dog person-- I also really like dogs. However, there's something about cats that just makes sense to me. Maybe it's their independence-- after all, a dog craves contact with its human friends, but you can leave a cat alone all day and it'll only occasionally come around and be social. Maybe it's in their elegance and deadliness, the way cats fastidiously groom themselves and do their own highly lethal hunting. Or maybe it's their extreme stupidity. My cats are cool and smart animals, but let's face it, they're just not strong enough to overcome the terrifying power of a plastic grocery bag.
There are a lot of ways to enhance your appreciation of your cat. Some folks shower their feline buddies with toys and treats. Others take photos and videos of their cats and post them online, a phenomenon which has gradually transformed into a billion-dollar business that drives a huge segment of the internet. But for me, there's only one true way to indulge in my enjoyment of cats without actually going and bothering my own: cat comics, that's how!
In Japan, there are many genres of manga that don't get a big spotlight elsewhere in the world. There's business manga, there's golf manga, there's mahjong manga, and there's cat manga. Of course, we have cat comics here-- Jim Davis's Garfield is probably the single most popular cat comic in the entire world, actually. I actually love Garfield, but like a lot of fans, I've long since stopped reading the comic in favor of the budding genre of weird, unofficial transmedia Garfield spinoffs, like Garfield Without Garfield, and my favorite, Lasagna Cat. But Garfield (as well as cat comic also-rans, like Heathcliff) is largely driven by anthropomorphized slapstick and snarky internal monologues; cat manga, on the other hand, tends to press a whole different set of buttons.
Few are as adept at pressing those buttons as Makoto Kobayashi, the manga artist (not a mechanical designer! That's a totally different Makoto Kobayashi.) behind What's Michael?, a popular cat manga from the 1980s. Instead of giving the title cat, an orange tabby, a neverending stream of human-like thoughts to riff on, Kobayashi focuses on natural feline behavior to frame his jokes and stories. His detailed and vivid works depict phenomenon like the bizarre body language cats will use when they're getting ready to cough up a hairball, or the “bad smell” face that cats make when they encounter something particularly fragrant; in real life, when a cat clumsily falls off a ledge, it'll slink or strut away like nothing happened, carefully hiding its embarrassment. In Kobayashi's comics, the cat will look at the reader sheepishly after a fall, and then haltingly rear up on its hind legs and start dancing, which it had clearly intended to do all along.
Beyond the occasional exaggeration, that's what makes What's Michael? so effective-- the manga's genius is in the way the artist doesn't feel the need to embellish or invent behavior for its pet characters. The series was very popular in Japan, running for nine volumes, and it hooked me right away when I first read it in the pages of Mangajin, a long-defunct magazine that had the brilliant idea of using manga to teach basic Japanese to English-speakers. What's Michael? also got one of those Kodansha bilingual comics released in Japan, a single slender volume that I snapped up eagerly before Dark Horse got on the case and released the series in similarly skinny 90-page paperbacks. I'm glad they did, because Michael and his owners (and later, his feline companion/girlfriend, Popo) were only one side of Kobayashi's humor. The other side involved Michael and company dressed up and acting like people, only also with funny animal behaviors.
Back in the mid-2000s anime boom, I used to go to a whole bunch of conventions for fun (now I only go to four or five per year, which is probably still way too many), and at those conventions, I'd sometimes hang out with Matt Greenfield, who was then general manager at ADV Films. Like many irritating fanboys, I'd pester him for insight about how anime is licensed and what titles were available. Occasionally, What's Michael? would come up. I was cognizant that there was an anime version because I'd dug up a couple of episodes on VCD in Chinatown. According to Matt, the Japanese firm with the right to sell What's Michael? overseas was actually pretty aggressive about pitching it, but there was one big problem-- the materials. The original films weren't on hand, so the masters that the company was offering were a stack of well-traveled U-matic tapes. Such tapes simply aren't suitable for home video release in this day and age; even in the 2000s, they looked way too crappy for commercial DVD release, and so What's Michael? remained unlicensed.
I wanted to touch on that briefly, both to alert my readers to the existence of a What's Michael? anime and to highlight a problem with a lot of these older shows-- the materials. We're spoiled by pristine re-releases of fare like Gatchaman and Little Norse Prince, but these releases only look good because the studios involved, Tatsunoko and Toei, have long recognized the value of their libraries and kept the source materials in excellent condition. But What's Michael? was produced by Kitty Films, a financially volatile studio that gradually shifted its focus away from anime over the past 20 years. They had a string of hits, like Ranma ½ and Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but have sold their rights to many of these, or passed home video management to other firms. Less enduringly popular fare, such as What's Michael?, doesn't always get pulled out of the weeds. There isn't even a full home video release of What's Michael? in Japan!
Fortunately, there's plenty of other cat manga and anime. What's Michael? was a big favorite of mine a decade ago, but nowadays you're more likely to catch me curled up in bed with one of the cats and a volume of Chi's Sweet Home, a gentle, appealing color manga by Konami Kanata. Kobayashi established his What's Michael? cast in vignette-- there wasn't much of an ongoing storyline in his pages. Kanata takes the opposite approach, guiding us through the life of a kitten as she's adopted by a family and settles into everyday life. Kanata's approach, which involves giving the title cat a running internal monologue, also exposes a whole different set of cat-related jokes and anxieties, like the problems that arise when it's time to take the cat to the veterinarian. (As with many households, this involves deception, misdirection, and trying desperately to keep the cat from seeing the cat carrier until the last second, because it knows damn well what that thing means!)
Another contrast is in the way Kanata renders her characters-- instead of Kobayashi's comically exaggerated realism, Kanata goes for a simpler, more cartoonish look. The title kitten wears a constant expression of bug-eyed, confused delight, which starts from the opening panel and continues for the entire series. One fun detail: Chi herself is based on Kanata's real-life cat, Pee. (In the comics, Chi is named for her early tendency to go to the bathroom where she's not supposed to. Could the real-life Chi be named for the same reason?! I think so! Maybe I'm not the only one who's kind of weird and lazy about naming my cats...)
Kanata is actually one of the big stars of cat manga-- she's been cooking up gag and story comics about felines for decades, starting with shoujo manga Petit Cat Jam-Jam and progressing to her first sustained hit, Fukufuku Funyan, which ran for years in the pages of BE · LOVE, a manga mag for adult women. Fukufuku, an expressive tortoiseshell cat, is both nearsighted and a little fat, but as far as I know, she does not, in fact, hate Mondays. Chi's Sweet Home would eventually run in a seinen magazine, an interesting choice of publication that did absolutely nothing to stop the series from getting really popular. There's an anime version of Chi that's a little easier to dig up than What's Michael?.
What's Michael? and Chi's Sweet Home are my favorites, and they're some of the only cat manga that you can scare up in English. If you break for anime, you'll find a little more variety, but it's mostly fare featuring anthropomorphic cats, like Doraemon and Catnapped and Samurai Pizza Cats and that weird Baby Felix the Cat cartoon that you can find in the dollar DVD bin at the Dollar General that is, in fact, Japanese animation. A lot of cat manga doesn't neatly fit into the straight-to-paperback model we prefer in North America, either; I dig up pages of Cat Pitcher, a gag manga featuring a cat that plays pro baseball, wherever I can find them, but Cat Pitcher is like Garfield in that it's all brief gag comics that run in the newspaper. The Japan News has a couple of pages translated on its site, and there's a yet-unlicensed anime version, but I want more, dammit! Who will be brave and release Cat Pitcher in English?
Actually, there is one more cat manga that I think is overdue for some sort of official English release, and that's Junji Ito's Cat Diary. We all know and love Junji Ito for creepy horror fare like Gyo, Tomie, and that one scary comic where people slither into human-sized holes in the mountainside, never to be seen again. As it happens, horror master Ito kicked out a single volume chronicle about cats. And it's not horror manga!
What makes Cat Diary great is that Ito actually uses his horror chops in creating the story-- the comics he draws about funny housecats are stuffed with frenzied internal monologues, menacing shadows, terrifyingly blank faces, and contorted bodies. But in the end, most of these menacing shapes are perceived only by the protagonist, an amusingly paranoid self-insert version of Ito himself. Meanwhile, his kindly fiancee (depicted as a grinning fiend) and their two new cats, Yon and Muu (hey, they're named 4 and 6! I really am not the only one who's really silly and lazy about cat names!!) are just a pair of personable cats, even though they're typically depicted in the comics with a disturbing level of realism and detail.
Ultimately, I'm intrigued that there's a flourishing genre of manga that's mostly about cats. Both What's Michael? and Chi's Sweet Home have taught me a lot about my own pets, so I hope that more cat manga comes out in English. As for you readers, do you have any favorite cat manga and anime? See if you can dig up any I haven't mentioned, and let me leave you with just one more big question: If there's cat manga, is there also dog manga?
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