The Cat Who Saved Books

Japanese Title: 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi)
Author: Sosuke Natsukawa (夏川 草介)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: HarperCollins
Pages: 198

A high school junior named Rintaro Natsuki has inherited a bookstore from his recently deceased grandfather. During the week following the funeral, Rintaro is visited by a talking cat who spirits him away to a series of four magical book-themed “labyrinths.”

The Cat Who Saved Books is a celebration of reading in which a teenage booklover matches wits with the embodiments of academic pigheadedness and corporate greed. The warm coziness of Rintaro’s small bookstore is a welcome haven from the opulent sprawl of the Amazonian book labyrinths. At the center of each labyrinth is an adult in a position of power who misuses his authority to mistreat books. Accompanied his crush, Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro is tasked with reminding these jaded adults of the true joy of reading. The boss of the second labyrinth, for instance, is a professor obsessed with dissecting books in order to create tidy summaries that will facilitate speed reading, but he realizes the error of his ways when Rintaro and Sayo present him with the passionate argument that reading is about the journey, not the destination.

The Cat Who Saved Books is unabashedly sentimental, and Rintaro and Sayo’s earnest sincerity can feel embarrassingly naive at times. That being said, the story’s satire is surprisingly sharp. The Cat Who Saved Books reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 in the strength of its indictment of the contemporary Japanese publishing industry. I was especially impressed by the third labyrinth, which acts as a bitter critique of giant corporations that put out a steady stream of publications simply for the purpose of pursuing profit. Natsukawa’s comments on easily digestible self-help guides written in the form of bullet points (“Five Ways to Change Your Life!”) are amusing, as is the fantastic image of endless reams of paper tossed from the windows of an impossibly tall skyscraper.

Each labyrinth’s theme is underscored by a set of books. The books referenced are (with the sole exception of Osamu Dazai’s short story “Run, Melos!”) classics of European literature. Examples include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These books line the shelves of the store managed by Rintaro’s grandfather, who stepped away from an important position in academia in order to free literature from the clutches of scholars and help make them more accessible to ordinary people. Although it’s odd not to see any Japanese fiction mentioned, these weighty European classics conjure an image of the sort of old-fashioned bookstores that used to be common in big cities but are quickly disappearing.  

That being said, the homogeneity of the “serious literature” Natsukawa valorizes in The Cat Who Saved Books is a bit disappointing. I remember what small bookstores used to be like, and I remember hating them. What if you want to read stories that aren’t written by not-so-proverbial Dead White Men? What if you want to read stories written by women? What if you want to read stories that speak more intimately to your own experiences? What if you want to read stories that challenge reality instead of simply reflecting it? It’s ironic that The Cat Who Saved Books would have no place at Rintaro’s bookstore, and it’s a shame the story isn’t self-reflexive enough to acknowledge this. It’s easy to sneer at study guides and self-help books, but that’s what funds the publication of literary fiction.

Likewise, it’s easy for me to be frustrated with the naive idealism of The Cat Who Saved Books, but I can imagine that this title will be prominently displayed in the windows of the indie bookstores that are still fighting the good fight. Perhaps it might even help booksellers guide interested readers to more stories outside the sphere of “literary classics.”  

Thankfully, HarperCollins has put an enormous amount of love and care into the publication of the hardcover edition of The Cat Who Saved Books. This book is a beautiful physical object. I’m a big fan of the gorgeous cover drawn by Yuko Shimizu, who was given space to write an interesting note that offers insight into her creative process. There’s also a wonderful afterword by Louise Heal Kawai, who explains a number of translation choices, including her decision not to assign gendered pronouns to the talking cat.   

As a middle-grade novel, The Cat Who Saved Books is perfect for younger readers just beginning their journey with books. The fantastic elements of the story will appeal to fans of anime and video games, and older readers who enjoy light novels and visual novels will appreciate the colorful, over-the-top characters and comfortably formulaic story structure. The Cat Who Saved Books is an entertaining story filled with warmth, kindness, and bright-eyed hope for the future of books as a means of encouraging empathy and inspiring imagination, and it speaks both to the kids delighted by its adventure and to the adults amused by its satire.

.   .   . . .

I’d like to extend my gratitude to HarperCollins for providing an advance review copy of The Cat Who Saved Books. The North American hardcover edition will be released on December 7, 2021. You can learn more about the book on its website (here) and order a copy from your local small bookstore, which you can find through IndieBound.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

moribito

Title: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Japanese Title: 精霊の守り人
Author: Uehashi Nahoko (上橋菜穂子)
Illustrations: Yuko Shimizu
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Pages: 260

To hold the book Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in my hands is something of a nostalgic experience. This may be because the book is published by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic, which is also responsible for the beautiful hardcover editions of the Harry Potter books. Like its famous cousins, Moribito features beautiful binding and page design, as well as detailed and dynamic illustrations provided by the chic young illustrator Yuko Shimizu. At the end of the book is a list of characters, a list of places and terms, and a short yet intriguing note from the author. In other words, in terms of sheer physical beauty and craftsmanship, Moribito is a pleasure to read.

Thankfully, the actual content of the book is just as appealing, both to younger and to more mature readers. There is action, adventure, magic, intrigue, and a touch of romance with none of the pandering to adult sensibilities of what children should and shouldn’t read that generally clouds the narratives of Western children’s literature. Equally refreshing is the change of scenery from a whimsical fantasyland inspired by Western folklore to a fictional yet strangely believable setting drawn from East Asian (especially Japanese) geography, history, and mythology. Gone are the kings and knights of Western fantasy; in their place are the emperors and scholars of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tradition.

One of the reasons why I personally like this book, however, is its strong female characters. The plot revolves around a young prince, Chagum, who is being hunted by his father, the Emperor of New Yogo, because he carries the seed of the land’s destruction within him in the form of a magical egg from Nayugu, a realm of spirits that overlaps the physical realm of humans. In order to save her son, Chagum’s mother enlists the services of Balsa, a spear-wielding bodyguard with three decades of fighting and hardship behind her. Aiding Balsa in her mission to protect the prince and discover the secret of the egg are Torogai, an old woman well-versed in lore and shamanistic magic, and Tanda, an herbalist and childhood friend of Balsa who heals her when she is injured in battle. Both Torogai and Balsa are extraordinary characters who have lived extraordinary lives, and they easily qualify as two of the most realistic yet appealing female characters I have encountered in literature. They are nothing if not the equals of the men they encounter, and it is their actions that drive the majority of the plot. This is not to say that the male characters are downplayed in any way; rather, the female characters are not driven into any stereotypically “female” behavior vis-à-vis their male counterparts.

Uehashi’s Moribito is courageous not just in its portrayal of female characters but also in its questioning of the Japanese myths of national founding and the imperial system. Even more than fifty years after Hirohito proclaimed that the Japanese emperor is not a god but rather the symbol of a nation, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the imperial institution in Japan. By uncovering the surprising reality behind the myths surrounding the creation of New Yogo, Uehashi indirectly encourages a more critical attitude towards Japan’s own national mythology.

Both children looking for entertainment and adults looking for something more will heartily enjoy every page of this book. And, should the reader decide that he or she wants more, there is a 26 episode, beautiful anime series (released in America by Media Blasters) that follows the events of the novel, as well as several other volumes in the series, the second of which is slated to be released in an English translation on May 1, 2009.