My old-time manga education continues with another member of the Year 24 group, Yumiko Oshima! Who I did not realize was a member of said group until I googled her name just now because I am woefully unaware of the action in shojo history unless it is related to Boys’ Love! Which maybe makes me a weirdo! I don’t know! (You guys don’t think I’m a weirdo, right?) (Right???)
I actually picked this title up because it was the absolute, all-time favourite of my friend M. when she was a kid. If someone I love loves something enough to get all misty-eyed about it in the middle of Mandarake when happening upon said something on a shelf of musty shojo, then it must be worth reading. (This is how I expand my reading world!) Although to be honest, I had a skeptical eyebrow raised. A story about a kitten who thinks she’s people? Yaaaaaawn.
But now that I know she was part of that whole lady revolution in manga, it all falls into place. And sure, it is a cat manga, a thing which I am usually not that into. Cat people, please don’t write me angry emails. I love cats and I look at my fair share of pictures of them on the Internet. But comics about cats always come off as schmalzy and far too cutesy for my liking. There are exceptions, of course, and I might put Wata no Kuni Hoshi in that category, if only because of the overwhelming shojo-ness of it. Yes, the main character is a cat, a kitten, to be specific. But she is drawn as a little girl and she is a little girl in looooooove, the true heart of all great shojo manga.
After being abandoned by some heartless woman who pulled a midnight move on her, the kitten is found and taken in by Tokio, who promptly names her “Chibi” (“tiny”), the dullest name a cat can receive. (Well, the second dullest. Part way through the book, a pair of little kids try to make off with Chibi and want to name her “Shiro” (“Whitey”) because of her white fur. Yaaaaaaawn.)
Tokio’s been down in the dumps since he missed out on taking the university entrance exams, and he’s doing the standard ronin year, going to cram school and waiting around until the exams are held again the following year. His mom is crazy worried about him since this year of loafing about does not seem to agree with him, and she’s thrilled by the change she sees in him with the arrival of Chibi. So she pretends that she’s completely over the allergy to cats she has. Which, of course, she’s not. Except she’s not so much allergic to cats, as she is terrified of them. I’m pretty sure “allergy” is code for “phobia” here, especially as she manages to get over it and fall in love with Chibi like everyone else about halfway through the first book. I know people who are allergic to cats. That is just not how it works.
Chibi sincerely believes that she will become a human one day. She constructs a whole worldview based on this belief that things turn into new things. Certain kinds of people used to be different kinds of animals in her mind. Like the construction workers she sees used to be moles. One thing that really charmed me while reading is the very childlike way Chibi tries to make sense out of the world, imposing explanations on things she doesn’t understand. So when she comes across a picture of Persia, the place she most wants to go in the world, she tries to scratch her way into it because she saw photos of herself before and figures there must be a way to get into the picture.
All the cats she meets in her wanderings in the neighbourhood are also very awesome. I’m pretty sure someone working on the musical Cats saw this manga when they were designing the cats. Because wow! Dancer cat looked like he walked right off stage or something. Seeing all the cats depicted as people gives the whole story a different perspective. They all look human, but they think and act like cats. Languid, thoughtful, annoyed, suspicious of foreign objects. But it’s a person batting at that foreign object doubtfully, which cracked me up.
But all the giggles in this story are layered on top of some seriously sad, thoughtful times. Chibi is trying to find her place in the world. She’s already been abandoned by one family, she’s never known her cat mom, and she spends a lot of time mediating on death. To the point where she actually stops eating because she cannot handle the thought that everything she eats was once alive and now it is not and one day she will be not too. As if that weren’t enough, she is in love with Tokio. She remains convinced that she will become human and live happily ever after with Tokio, even after the gloriously imposing Rafael tells her it is not possible for her to become human–she lives as a cat, she will die as a cat. So when Tokio falls for a girl with the braids, she realizes she has to make that change sooner rather than later.
And the art accompanying these sad times is equally sad. Striking use of full black pages as a way of conveying strong emotions (not just sadness, but usually mixed with sadness) and isolating characters from the world around them to focus on those emotions. I am particularly in love with a page depicting little Chibi lost without Rafael in a bamboo forest. And the panelling or lack thereof is pure Year 24. Bursts of flowers here and there, characters standing alone without any border lines to contain them or else protruding from one panel into a neighbouring panel. And so, so androgynous. I thought Tokio’s mother was a man and Tokio was a woman for the first few pages. And hey, if you keep thinking his mother is a man, the whole book takes on some new queer dimensions.
Although I ended up really liking Oshima’s Chibi and her thoughtful ways, I still prefer the over-the-top melodrama of fellow Year 24er Keiko Takemiya’s Kaze to Ki no Uta. But I love seeing the way the same starting points and artistic ideals can veer off into other, more safe-for-work directions. And I’m amazed to see commonalities in stories as wildly different as cat girl in love and french boys’ sex school. Just another reason to read as much and as widely as you can.
PS. Here is maybe the cutest thing ever?