Japanese Literature’s Feline Love Affair
Through several works, there is an undeniable symbiosis between cats and Japanese literatures. Many a Japanese author are enamored by the seemingly stoic four-legged creature that they have appeared across many works. From Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, this love affair has been tested through time.
The latest addition to this long-standing tradition of unusual love affair is Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Upon its translation, it instantly turned into an international sensation, for all the good reasons.
Nana, Japanese for number seven, is an unusual name to give a tomcat, a stray one at that. In Japanese superstition, seven is lucky so when Satoru saw Nana’s number seven-shaped tail, it was a no-brainer what to name the homeless tomcat he adopted after nursing it back to health. With a soft spot for animals, especially cats, Satoru inevitably warmed up to Nana and ended up welcoming him to his fold.
Five years of cohabitation and perfect harmony took a sharp turn when Satoru is no longer capable of taking care of Nana. To search for a suitable home for Nana, Satoru and Nana embark on a journey all over Japan, visiting Satoru’s old-time friends. Will someone be suitable enough to take care of Nana the way Satoru took care of Nana?
Retold through the words of a feline raconteur, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is, at its core, a heartwarming tale about the unusual relationship between humans and their feline companion, or their pets in general. It tackles the blurred and unusually confusing line where our perceptions of our pets’ feelings and emotions converges with our own.
Through Satoru and Nana’s eccentric relationship, The Travelling Cat Chronicles also places the proverbial magnifying glass on the different relationships we build over the years. Their journey all over Japan sidesteps into the elegiac as the novel relives bits and pieces of Satoru’s younger life through flashbacks and memories.
Whilst the novel draws fascination with its witty raconteur, it warms the heart with Satoru’s story of growth and development as a person and a human being. In a way, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a subtle yet endearing coming-of-age story. In Satoru’s darkest days, his friends Kosuke, Yoshimine, Sugi and Chikako stood by him. Their company helped Satoru heal and survive the scars of his childhood. More importantly, they helped preserve Satoru’s innate kindness.
The novel’s best, if not one of the best, facet is the endearing relationship between Satoru and Nana. Satoru has a soft spot, in stark dichotomy to Nana’s cold and elusive gloom; he is used to being left alone in the cold. They have an unbreakable bond that is invisible to the eye but palpable to the heart. Nana’s narration leaves so much to be wanted. His wit made up for a moving and insightful recount of their adventures and companionship.
Many might posit that due to the novel’s fantastical nature and mostly warm atmosphere, it would be puerile for adults to read it. However, Arikawa showed that the things we value during our childhood carries on being valued until our adulthood. Our childhood friends, for instance, are instrumental in molding our characters. Remembrances of memories of youth gives semblance of strength when being an adult is too much to bear.
As a casual spectator, it is easy to assume that the novel evaded the archetypes of Japanese literature. But as one reads between the lines, it becomes apparent how subtly Arikawa painted a wonderful backdrop to her literary masterpiece. Arikawa drew the contours of the Japanese countryside through Satoru and Nana’s adventures in their silver van. It is her obscure but unmistakable tribute to her native country.
The leisurely pace of the novel is attributed to its deceptively simple structure. In between Nana’s first-person narratives are perfectly timed interjections of poignant third-person flashbacks. The three journeys to friends follow a pilgrimage through an idyllic landscape that comes full circle in Sapporo’s snow-covered scenery. The ensuing final journey leaves an ache to the heart, a sad but heartwarming conclusion to an amazingly thought out novel.
The personification of animals is hardly original; it is a plot device that is prevalent in the world of literature. Perhaps this is our attempt at translating the cock-a-doodle-doos, the barks, the hisses and the endless cacophony of animal noises which we can never seem to understand or act as if we do. Understandably so; we have that innate curiosity for things that are beyond our comprehension. Our fervent drive to seek is an unmatched one.
Nana’s personification makes the story, at times, feel more like of an anime rather than a full-blown novel. The novel is laced with so much of his character, giving it a different complexion. The cartoon-like atmosphere doesn’t diminish the story’s better qualities, rather, it enhances them, elevating the novel and giving readers a magnificent reading experience.
There are areas the novel could have gone better such as having Nana narrate the entire story. However, these flaws are minor to what the story holds. These are trifles. On a grander scale, The Travelling Cat Chronicles projects an entire array of emotions that is rarely experienced. All throughout their journey, what Nana witnessed is Satoru’s kindness and his unmatched consideration for those around him.
To say the least, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a moving story. Arikawa’s profound understanding of both human and animal emotions translated well into this riveting read. Its obscure immersion into the losses we incur as we grow up is negated by its mirthful celebration of life, memories and growth.
“My story will be over soon. But it’s not something to be sad about. As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another. Remembering those who went ahead. Remembering those who will follow after. And someday, we will meet all those people again, out beyond the horizon.” ~ Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles
The Travelling Cat Chronicles is, so far, my best read of 2019. It is a great book for children and animal-lovers alike but it is also a great one for those who are just seeking a pleasant read. I am neither a child nor an animal lover but I immensely enjoyed it. It is a very pleasurable and light read that it took me just one day to devour. I had the ending guessed midway through the novel but it didn’t prepare me with the well of emotions that the conclusion evoked. A highly-recommended exceptional and amazing story.
Author: Hiro Arikawa
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 277
Genre: Bildungsroman, Domestic Fiction, Japanese Literature
An instant international bestseller, The Travelling Cat Chronicles has charmed readers around the world. With simple yet descriptive prose, this novel gives voice to Nana the cat and his owner, Saoru, as they take to the road on a journey with no other purpose than to visit three of Satoru’s longtime friends. Or so Nana is led to believe…
With his crooked tail – a sign of good fortune – and adventurous spirit Nana is the perfect companion for the man who took him in as a stray. And they travel in a silver van across japan, with its ever-changing scenery and seasons, they will learn the true meaning of courage and gratitude, of loyalty and love.
About the Author
Hiro Arikawa was born on June 9, 1972 in Kochi Prefecture, Japan.
Her first work, Shio no Machi: Wish on my Precious won the 10th annual Dongeki Novel Prize for new writers in 2003. It was published the following year. Apart from being a light novelist, Arikawa doubles up a screenwriter; some of her works were adapted into movies and drama series.
Her latest work, The Travelling Cat Chronicles (Tabineko Ripouto) was a sensational bestseller in Japan.