We haven’t talked about Taiyo Matsumoto in a while, have we? Which is a damned shame because he is a startlingly brilliant artist, and I wish he’d give us more chances to talk about him. But he is not the fastest artist, and while I have seen things (lovely things!) and know things (exciting things!), I’m not allowed to say anything about any of it, so I have kept my mouth firmly shut about all things Matsumoto since the heartbreaking end of Sunny.
But now! Finally! A new work out in print! Louvre (or Les chats du Louvre as the French subtitle would have it) is the latest in a line of comics commissioned by the great Parisian museum itself together with the publisher Futuropolis. Previous Japanese entries in this notably dude-heavy (one woman in the course of fifteen books? Seriously??) series are Jiro Taniguchi’s The Guardians of the Louvre (a very touching homage to which pops up toward the end of Louvre) and Hirohiko Araki’s Rohan at the Louvre, and it’s clear that Matsumoto with his European influences and interest in pushing the boundaries of manga was maybe the perfect mangaka to join their ranks. How he decided that the perfect story for the Louvre was the surreal, wandering tale of a herd of anthropomorphized stray cats and a little girl, however, will likely remain a mystery for the ages.
I got the chance to see some of the art for this book (including the first chapter) at the Louvre No. 9 show at the Mori Art Museum a couple of years ago, which introduced a number of the Louvre Collection artists. So even though Matsumoto was way behind schedule in publishing the series, he had enough of it finished for them to include at least some of it in the show. And naturally, they were selling goods of pretty much everything, so I’ve had a lovely fridge magnet of the color splash pages in the first chapter adorning my fridge ever since. (Not to mention a very useful clear file holding my Important Documents.) And while I’ve enjoyed the giant cat head looking out at me from atop the Louvre, I’ve also wondered what story was going to be told with that cat head. And now, at last, I know.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a weird story. Cécille is a tour guide at the Louvre, and as she leads yet another group to the Mona Lisa and wishes she could show them other works instead of always this one, she spots a white kitten in amongst the crowd before her. She mentions it to her colleague at the end of the day, creating a dreamy backstory for the kitten, but her colleague laughs her off. There are no cats at the Louvre. Patrick and his much older colleague, Marcel, however, show us that actually, there’s a whole attic full of cats that Marcel feeds every night during their patrol. So far, the cats are just cats. But starting in chapter two, the cats are still cats but also people cats that discuss their cat lives at the Louvre. There is also a spider person wearing psychedelic shades that is at peace with the entire universe and pretty friendly with our main character cat, Yukinoko.
Although he is six years old, well into adulthood for a cat, Yukinoko is a little boy cat person/kitten that slips in and out of the paintings of the Louvre. In the words of Marcel, he “can hear the voice of the paintings.” Yukinoko wanders around the museum jumping into paintings when he hears them call to him, but when actual people catch sight of him in the building, he puts the rest of the cats in danger, so not everyone is happy with his little adventures. Meanwhile, in the human world, Marcel tells Cécile and Patrick about his sister who disappeared so many years ago right there in that very Louvre, setting in motion the mystery that pulls the story forward.
But to be honest, there’s not much of a story here. And I mean that in the best possible way. Matsumoto’s focus is, as it always is, on the characters and their interactions and what they mean to each other. It’s just this time, some of those characters are cat people. And a very mean dog. But in the end, Louvre is about a little boy growing up, Peter Pan style, and an old man being freed from a lifetime of guilt and sadness. Or rather, it’s about each of its characters finding a new way of being, letting go of their pasts and moving forward, with the help of some supernatural painting action.
Art-wise, Matsumoto gives us more of what he delighted our eyeballs with in Sunny. All those washes and pencils and rosy cheeks and turtlenecks! And he proves to us yet again that the man understands animals and how they move. There are so many utterly beautiful panels of cats being cats in these two books. And although the cover of the book only has Matsumoto’s name on it, the last pages of volume two give credit for both story and art to Matsumoto and his wife, Saho Tono. Just as with Sunny, you can see Tono’s poetic influence all over these pages, and I’m glad she’s getting some credit at least. (He also credits her on the production in the last volume of Sunny.) But given that Matsumoto talks about her as an equal partner in his work lately, I do wonder why her name can’t also be on the cover. If nothing else, that would offer a welcome increase the number of women in the Louvre series.
But all my grumbling about the treatment of women aside, Louvre is lovely, a beautiful and moving new work from Matsumoto that is almost certainly going to be published in English sooner rather than later. And it serves its original function as an introduction to the Louvre and the works it holds, as Matsumoto takes us through the many levels of the museum, including its restoration studios. Basically, you’re going to want to read this, and you’re going to need some tissues.