Chi’s Sweet Home

Title: チーズスイートホーム (Chi’s Sweet Home)
Artist: こなみかなた (Konami Kanata)
Publication Year: 2004 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 6)
Publisher: 講談社 (Kōdansha)
Pages: 165 (per volume)

Chi’s Sweet Home is not a masterpiece of manga. It will not blow you away with its brilliance and depth. It is, quite simply, cute. Utterly and irredeemably cute.

Chi is a small grey tabby kitten who gets lost after she becomes distracted while out for a walk with her mother. She ends up crying on the grass of a neighborhood park, where she comes face to face with a small boy named Yōhei, who has also gotten lost. After Yōhei’s mother finds him, the pair takes the exhausted kitten home. Chi gradually gets used to her new home with the Yamada family, but she still misses her mother. The Yamada family gradually gets used to life with Chi, but their apartment complex doesn’t allow its residents to keep pets.

Each short, eight-page chapter of the manga focuses on one small episode in the life of Chi and the Yamada family. Chi goes for a walk. Chi goes to the vet. Chi learns that she loves milk. Chi learns how to use the litterbox. Chi climbs the stairs. Chi climbs the window curtains. And so on. These mini-adventures are tied together by the central conflicts of the series, which span several volumes at a time and are developed and resolved in surprising yet satisfying ways. The characters, especially Chi and Yōhei, also develop slowly as they gradually grow older.

Chi’s Sweet Home belongs to a genre that I will call “pet manga.” Some of these manga, such as Shirakawa Kikuno’s Momokan, are obviously targeted at children. Others, such as Konami Kanata’s earlier manga about an old Japanese woman and her old Japanese cat, Fuku-fuku Funyan, and Iwamichi Sakura’s housewife comedy Shiawase neko gohan, are aimed mainly towards adults. Chi’s Sweet Home at first seems to be a children’s manga, with its simple vocabulary and character designs, but it doesn’t strike the reader (at least not this reader) as childish. It’s just unbearably cute. I don’t mean that it’s precious or affected – Chi is unartfully heart-stoppingly adorable.

Within this genre, Konami’s manga seems to have performed fairly well. The chapters of Chi’s Sweet Home have been serialized in Kōdansha’s Weekly Morning magazine, a popular manga periodical aimed at adults (or at least older young adults) and featuring manga that either make an attempt at realism or explore historical fantasies (like Nakamura Hikaru’s popular Sei onii-san, or “Saint Young Men,” which has Jesus and Shakyamuni Buddha living together in a flat in Tokyo). Chi’s Sweet Home picture books and calendars can be found in bookstores alongside the manga, and, in 2008, an animated version produced by Studio Madhouse began airing on TV Tokyo.

What makes Chi’s Sweet Home stand out? (Besides the ridiculous cuteness?) It might be that each volume of the manga is published in full color. It might be the text of the manga, which invents onomatopoeia at will and gives Chi a highly distinctive voice. It might also be that Konami manages to construct an effortlessly believable world that the reader feels as if he or she could easily enter. This world building is strengthened by the extras that are included in the back of each volume, such as apartment floor plans and neighborhood maps. Other extras include interviews with Konami and the step-by-step process that the manga artist undergoes in the creation of each chapter. Overall, Chi’s Sweet Home is a beautifully drawn, beautifully written, and beautifully published manga. And did I mention how cute it is?

Vertical Press has picked up the American license of the property and will begin releasing it in English translation in June of this summer. The original Japanese manga, however, should not pose a problem to anyone with a semester or two of language training. I feel that each individual episode is so well-crafted that even someone with no Japanese background will be able to understand and appreciate the story.

Here’s an example:

Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo

Neko Nabe

Neko Nabe, by Okumori Sugari

Title: ねこ鍋:みちのく猫ものがたり
English Title: “Neko Nabe: A Tale of Cats in the Northern Provinces”
Author (and Photographer): 奥森すがり (Okumori Sugari)
Publication Year: 2007 (Japan)
Pages: 96

Neko Nabe is a photography book chronicling author Okumori Sugari’s attempts to raise a litter of stray kittens in a traditional farmhouse in the north of Honshū, an area traditionally referred to as “michinoku.” To scholars of pre-modern Japanese literature, this area will be familiar as the setting of Bashō’s famous haiku collection Oku no Hosomichi (“Journey to the Far North”). Scholars of contemporary Japan will recognize Neko Nabe itself as a major phenomenon in bookstores and on the internet.

As her kittens (neko) grow older, Okumori finds that they have a habit of sleeping curled up in Japanese cooking dishes called nabe, which are used in the winter for making potluck stews called nabemono. Pictures of kittens sleeping in nabe abound, but this book has quite a bit more content to offer, especially as the photographs and text detail life in a pleasantly rural part of a country that is often perceived as overwhelmingly urban.

Another joy of this book is that it is written in the local dialect. Because Okumori’s Japanese is fairly simple to understand, a student of the language should have no trouble picking out and deciphering the instances of northern dialect. For example, 先ず becomes まんず, 私 becomes おらほ, and the speech of Okumori’s father and grandmother becomes quite colorful indeed.

Neko Nabe, filled with amusing anecdotes and charmingly amateurish photography, is a short, easy, and oddly engrossing read for Japanese students interested in a depiction of life outside of Tokyo. Even when the dialect gets too heavy to be comprehensible, the cats are still cute, so there’s no way to lose.