Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 18, 2014

"A Cat, a Man and Two Women" by Tanizaki Junichiro (and other Japanese cat literature)

That the Japanese are great cat-lovers is obvious to any visitor here. This feline infatuation springs not only from the fact that cats are elegant and mysterious, but above all finds its origin in the feeling of iyashi, of peacefulness, that cats impart, and that makes you forget your daily worries. And, of course, as Japan is also the "country of cuteness," you'll stumble everywhere over cat bags, cat mugs, cat plates, and countless other daily items with feline images.

Cat in Kobe
[Cat on a Kobe street - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Although we find some great cats in ukiyo-e - for example those by Kuniyoshi - cats really came into their own as protagonists in modern Japanese literature. The first famous literary cat is the unnamed feline of I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) written in 1905 by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), one of Japan's greatest 20th c. novelists. The satirical story is narrated by a cat living in the household of a teacher of modest means and abilities. From a rather haughty point of view, the cat listens in on the discussions between the teacher and his family and friends: the cat is convinced that his master is selfish and lazy, if not a fool, and that he himself is a sort of special royalty - as cats indeed often think.

The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) wrote the surrealistic short story The Town of Cats (1935) where a traveler in a strange town suddenly has a vision that all the roads around him are filled with cats - nothing but cats wherever he looks, something he finds horrifying. Obviously, here the cat is not a messenger of peace but rather a harbinger of the uncanny. (Did Murakami Haruki think of this story when he wrote about his own "cat town" in 1Q84?).

The cat also appears in crime fiction, such as in the popular whodunit Neko wa shite ita (1957) by Niki Etsuko (1928-1986), about a series of murders in a clinic where a black cat called Chimi is mysteriously involved. Another, even more famous example is the "Mikeneko Holmes" series ("Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat") by bestselling author Akagawa Jiro. The police detective in these popular books cannot bear the sight of blood and has phobias about heights and women, so it is a good thing that an intelligent cat comes to his rescue. Holmes stalks the crime scenes with feline composure, offering hints that lead to the solution and in fact doing all the detective work.

Cats also figure in contemporary novels. One example is Tama ya (Oh, Tama!) by Kanai Mieko, about an afflicted young man, his circle of bohemian friends and a pregnant cat that he is forced to take in. Another feline adventure is The Guest Cat (Neko no Kyaku) by Hiraide Takashi about a couple of freelancers working at home, who are visited by a small cat of the neighbors and end up falling in love with the "guest cat" they call Chibi.

Shinto cat - Umemiya Jinja
[Cat in a Shinto shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But the best literary treatment of the feline phenomenon is without a doubt A Cat, a Man and Two Women (Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) written in 1935-36 by the masterful Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965). This is a charming, comic novella with a female tortoiseshell cat called Lilly as the absolute star. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who is utterly in love with his cat Lilly - he loves her more than any of the two women who figure in his life. At the beginning of the story he is playing with Lily on the veranda of his house, sharing his mackerel with her and having her leap up to get the fish. His wife Fukuko clearly resents the close bond between her husband and his cat. Fukuko is Shozo's second wife - his young, new wife. The chastened ex-wife, Shinako, has been chased away by Shozo's scheming mother, who also lives in his house (the family has a shop) and in fact rules it with an iron hand.

So when a letter arrives from Shinako offering to take Lily off their hands, Fukuko is very much in favor, as is the mother... and Shozo is such a weak, submissive person that he agrees to give away his beloved Lily (only asking to be allowed to keep her for one more week). But after Lily is gone, Fukuko realizes with a shock it must have been a trick of Shinako: where Lily goes, Shozo also goes - isn't Shinako trying to get her husband back? Didn't Shinako in fact hate Lily? (That may be so, but when Lily comes to stay with her, Shinako develops a deep attachment to Lily and takes good care of her.) What will happen - will Shozo stay with Fukuko or go back to Shinako? I will not give the end away, which anyhow is rather open, but only remind you of the fact that Shozo loves Lily more than his two wives!

This is a humorous story which also provides an interesting glance at life in the Osaka-Kobe area in the 1930s (the story is situated in Ashiya), something which Tanizaki would do on a much grander scale in his masterwork, The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki).

But above all it is a very perceptive and touching story about the relation between a cat and the people around her, demonstrating Tanizaki's great understanding of feline behavior (Tanizaki was a great cat-lover himself) - and that all expressed in his usual, beautiful language.

[Kunisada - Image Wikipedia]

Some Japanese cats in translation:

A Cat, a Man and Two Women by Tanizaki Junichiro has been translated by Paul McCarthy and published by Kodansha International and Harper Flamingo Books in 1990. Unfortunately, out of print today.

I am a Cat (3 vols) by Natsume Soseki has been translated by Graeme Wilson and Aiko Ito in 1972 and is still in print (Tuttle Books).

The Town of Cats by Hagiwara Sakutaro has been translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler; another translation called Cat Town will be published in November of this year by the New York Review of Books (by Hiroaki Sato).

Oh, Tama! by Kanai Mieko has been translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy and is available from Kurodahan Press.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide has been translated by Eric Selland and is available from New Directions.