Torn from his mother at a young age, a stray kitten makes his way to the home of an English teacher living in Tokyo in the early 20th century and settles in with them. Kushami the English teacher entertains friends often and from these conversations this cat learns a great deal about the world, or at least the world as they view it.
While I was familiar with the title of this work and know that this work is the reason why many a cat person in anime refer to themselves as “wagahai” instead of “watashi,” I hadn’t read it before, or even anything beyond a one-sentence summary. So when the opportunity arose to read it in manga form I thought hey, why not! I’ll confess, when I saw the cover art and flipped through the pages I wondered at first if this may have been an edition for children given the art style (to be a bit tactless about it, Chiroru Kobato’s art reminds me of the simplified illustrations you find in Japanese-for-English-speakers textbooks like the Genki series, with all of the art focused on incredibly basic character designs and any backgrounds are less than even an afterthought). But, while again I can’t confirm how closely this hews to the original story, it’s hard to imagine that this version has been “dumbed down” for a younger audience, although that’s partially because I know this certainly wouldn’t have interested me as a younger person!
I Am a Cat wouldn’t have felt out of place in my high school English classes as our nameless cat narrator shows us the inner workings of a fragment of Japanese society: a nameless family where the characters bemoan their own laziness, the neighbors who are almost criminally nosy, and every side character that walks onto the page seems to have been pre-assigned at least one morale failing/vice. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a work of satire or not, although if it is then it’s failed in the sense that I couldn’t even realize it, I can certainly grasp when an English-language story from the same era is supposed to be satirical. If so, this type of “humor” is one that I’ve never found really funny — if the joke is that every character is flawed then where pray tell is the punchline, so this work was a bit of a struggle to finish in all regards.
What I’ll probably remember the most about this work however is the rather bizarre type-setting choices at points, as it’s unusual to see lettering this bad even in scanlations. This wasn’t the case in every single word balloon but almost every time there were two balloons joined together the spacing looked utterly bizarre, with the top of the text in the second bubble aligned to the bottom of the text in the first bubble. I honestly wonder if some sort of AI program was used since this would be such a weird choice for someone to deliberately make each time in 2021 (and presumably for the editorial staff to have also not seen anything wrong with this presentation). Translator Zack Davisson is the only English-language staff person credited on this release, everyone else is explicitly listed as having worked on the original Japanese version, which is also a strange choice considering that Tuttle Publishing did in fact go to the effort to put the translator’s name on the cover but left everyone else who worked on this a mystery.
Again, while I can’t comment on how faithful or useful an adaptation this manga is, I can say that I don’t think I’d recommend I Am a Cat to most people at all. It doesn’t seem to educate or entertain and if it doesn’t do either of those things, then what’s the point in a story where the cat dies at the end anyway?