Can I pander to you, fellow book battler? Can I finally join everyone else on the internet and talk about cats? Will you respect me less if I talk about cat manga? Will it change our relationship? I promise not to post cute cat photos. (Unless they happen to be included in the cat manga.) (Which they do.) It’s just that one of my favourite artists, Machiko Kyo, wrote a whole book of stories about her adorably standoff-ish and utterly beautiful princess of a cat, and I am powerless before this combination of artist and subject matter.
I have spent any number of words extolling the virtues of Kyo’s delicate watercolour style/watercolour-like use of markers, her warm, loose lines, and minimal backgrounds. I continue to be baffled/not baffled at the fact that she still has had absolutely nothing published in English. The brain part of me is the one that’s baffled: her work is so lovely and engaging; she writes things across a wide range of genres, so she really does offer something for everyone; and now she’s written a manga about her gorgeous and ridiculously expressive cat. Why are English publishers not lining up at her door?? But the rest of me, the part of me that works in the manga publishing industry in North America, is not baffled in the slightest. Kyo doesn’t make stereotypical “manga”; her work ends up being “comics in translation”, which is a much harder sale to make. And you know, economic realities, blah blah.
So while I am sad for all you monolinguals who will never know the joy of Kyo’s light, warm touch, I just happen to be good at this Japanese thing, so I can enjoy all of the delightful treats she offers up in the language she wrote them. Which includes Nekojou Mu-Mu, or as the English title has it, Mademoiselle Mu-Mu, a welcome break from her string of war manga, like Cocoon, the last title I read by her. The only thing that’s traumatic in this volume is when Mu-Mu falls into the bathtub while she is lolling happily on top of the lid. (Baths have lids in Japan to keep the water hot. The whole thing must be equal parts heaven and danger for cats. That warm surface! The terrifying ocean underneath!)
Given that the book kicks off with pages of colour photos of the real-life Mu-Mu, I assumed this was going to be a little more autobiographical than it was. Even on the page of characters, where Mu-Mu is introduced along with Sensei/Servant, Sensei looks pretty girlish and is described as a manga artist obsessed with sharing pics of their cat on Twitter and the like. And if you follow Kyo on Twitter, you will know that she is not in the least bit shy about sharing pictures of her cats. So it seemed reasonable to assume that this book was more essay style than fiction. But as she notes in the conversation with fellow cat manga artist Ryo Ikuemi, her life with Mu-Mu is basically the jumping-off point.
The human protagonist here is actually a guy, but he is also a manga artist, also spends an inordinate amount of time home alone with a cat, and also caters to said cat’s every whim. It feels more like Kyo just wanted to insert a layer of distance between her actual life and the manga to prevent herself from being trapped into mere reportage. It’s actually the cat who is the teller of this story, though. Sensei has basically zero dialogue and is only shown fawning over Mu-Mu and snapping pics of her to post on Twitter. We meet Mu-Mu when she is just an eager kitten, happy just to be with Sensei, frolicking delightedly at his feet. But six months later, she is fully aware of who exactly rules that roost, and she comes into her own as the princess character, sitting high up on the platform of her cat tower, looking down on Sensei frantically scribbling his “doodles”. We see Sensei from Mu’s perspective alone, which makes for some hilarious moments.
Like when she notes that because Sensei buys everything online because of past traumas in physical shops, new boxes are delivered to the house every day! “Hurry up and get that garbage inside out of there,” she commands her servant, as he moves to unpack one such box. And then in true cat fashion, she leaps inside the moment it’s empty. But that particular box is too large, so she steps out of it in favour of her tried-and-true box. Until one day! Her favourite box rips, and she snarls at her servant to fix it. “I’m not getting fat! The box is just old!” she insists.
Each chapter is only four pages long, so they come together here as little snippets of life with Servant and Mu, charming moments of the cat asserting her dominance or her princess-y personality in a variety of ways. She manages to open the screen door as payback when Servant/Sensei ignores her! Movers bring a new bed and steal away the old one while she is hiding under it! Sensei only gets phone calls about his deadlines, causing him to mope and moan “I want to die” at the phone. “So her name is Wantodie,” Mu-Mu notes, mistaking the machine for Sensei’s mistress. “He shouldn’t spend time with her if it’s so hard on him.”
By the time I turned the last page, I was ready to run out and get myself a snotty mademoiselle of my own. Fortunately (?), I travel far too much to ever have a cat, so I am saved from becoming a slave to my own tsundere princess. But I foster cats for Toronto Cat Rescue, which means I am essentially a slave to a string of demanding princes and princesses. So I guess the lesson is that we are all slaves to cats in the end? I mean, I’m writing about a cat manga on the internet here.