By Andrew Osmond.
She and Her Cat was one of the first animated films by Makoto Shinkai, five minutes of software-aided monochrome that he made mostly by himself, three years before Voices of a Distant Star. It’s on Anime Limited’s edition of Voices and Place Promised in Our Early Days. The film shows the close relationship between a woman and her cat, narrated from the cat’s adoring viewpoint. Shinkai voiced the feline himself.
Now the film has a “novelisation”, more precisely a novella building on the film’s starting point. It’s published in English by Penguin, which has decided not to play up its links to a feted anime film director. There’s no “From the director of Your Name” cover tag, nor any attempt to suggest anime in the cover picture. Penguin could have imitated the cover of the She and Her Cat manga, published several years ago by Vertical.
Instead, Penguin chooses to highlight the book’s translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, who translated a bestselling single-female Japanese novel, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. The book’s Amazon page adds a further “If you liked…” pointer, to The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arakawa. That’s a very interesting judgement call. Plainly the publisher knew Shinkai was a big name, but decided that foregrounding him would interest fewer readers than linking the book to Japanese novels about single women and cats.
There’s one more complication. The book isn’t just by Shinkai, as there’s a co-author name on the cover, Naruki Nakagawa. Weirdly, he’s not profiled in the “About the Authors” section, which just covers Shinkai and Takemori. Clearly this is the same Nakagawa with anime writing credits on Ergo Proxy and Halo Legends, and on ananime remake of She and Her Cat. Shinkai didn’t direct this remake, which was made by Liden Films in 2016, the year of Your Name. Directed by Kazuya Sakamoto, Liden’s version runs about twenty minutes and is subtitled “Everything Flows.”
However, it bears very little resemblance to the book beyond their shared debts to the Shinkai short. One of the few “extra” details in the Liden version that I spotted in the book was a comment about how the sound of a train evoked the power of the spinning Earth. You might well think that originated with Shinkai. Remember the sequence in 5 Centimetres where a train stuck in snow is presented like a ship lost in space, or so it feels to a boy held apart from his beloved.
The book was published in Japan in 2013, three years before the Liden Films remake, which makes attributions even harder. Without an Afterword clarifying who wrote what, we’re left to guess how much of the She and Her Cat book was written by Nakagawa rather than Shinkai. Shinkai’s name is first, but what does that prove? (As a kid, I thought George Lucas wrote the novelisation of Star Wars, just because his name was on the cover.)
Moving onto the book itself, it’s a novella (160 pages), though you could see it as a collection of four stories which overlap. Each section highlights a different cat and a different owner, though characters turn up in each other’s stories and unite in an epilogue. The first section expands on Shinkai’s film, with a cat and her young woman owner. The other cats are with a truculent female art student; a girl who’s a guilt-wracked shut-in (“hikikomori”); and an elderly woman whose life was consumed by caring for ailing in-laws. Each story starts with a page-size illustration, not manga-style; they’re by the British artist Rohan Eason.
Shinkai’s film was narrated by the cat, but each of the book’s stories switch between human and feline perspectives. The cats understand the humans but not vice versa; the same rule as a vintage animal story, Britain’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was illustrated in a Japanese edition by Osamu Tezuka. Consequently, the book alternates between human drama and talking-animal fare; the human stories include sombre subjects. One story has an attempted date rape. The elderly woman story skips over the most graphic details of how she cared for dementia patients, but conveys something of the strain of the job. Both stories go beyond anything in Shinkai’s anime, and nearly all anime that take reality seriously.
The book’s later pages also have an interesting first-person account of a young man stuck in Japan’s company system, subject to horrible hazing by his superiors. He and other youngsters in an IT company are told to dig a hole while the bosses yell at them. He ends up with a mental breakdown. It’s the kind of situation that anime should tackle more; maybe Shinaki will chance it in a future film. The subject is already hinted at in several Shinkai anime, in scenes of lost, miserable characters leading frustrated lives in Tokyo (Place Promised, 5 Centimetres, Garden of Words).
As noted, the book’s first section is an expansion of Shinkai’s original short, with a male cat who adores his woman owner and sees her as his girlfriend. The cat’s called Chobi in the book; in the Liden remake, the equivalent cat is a much older moggie called Daru, though the woman’s called Miyu in both. The book highlights Miyu’s boyfriend worries. She seldom sees her always-working partner, who hasn’t moved in yet, and she wonders how he sees her, before things deteriorate. Meanwhile, the cat narrates his side of the story in the throes of romantic bliss. “I liked to watch her do the laundry. The clothes still smelled of them, and I snuggled my whole body into them ecstatically.”
The humorous irony is obvious, but it’s more than irony. Miyu’s relationship with Chobi is presented as a far purer, healthier thing than the one she has with her boyfriend. The boyfriend isn’t involved with the attempted date rape, but things still end most hurtfully, which is never a risk for she and her cat. Chobi comments, “I couldn’t do anything about her problems. I just lived my days at her side” – something that was clear in the original Shinkai film.
Moreover, there’s a plain analogy between Miyu’s relationship with Chobi and that between the woman teacher Yukari and the teen schoolboy Takao in Garden of Words. Again the Garden relationship is presented as one of adoration (from Takao’s side) and affection (from Yukari’s). Takao’s line about Yukari, “To me, she represents nothing less than the very secrets of the world,” is something Chobi could have equally said of Miyu in She and Her Cat. Indeed, the story of Miyu and Chobi is called “Sea of Words” in the books, though I don’t know if that’s as close to Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa) in Japanese as it is in English.
Of course, you could argue there’s a crucial difference with Garden of Words. That’s the story of two humans, and Takao’s adoration, however gentlemanly, still amounts to sublimated desire for a beautiful woman. The desire can seemingly never be consummated; perhaps Garden’s post-credits epilogue hints otherwise, but the film leaves it wisely oblique. (As anyone at 2022’s Scotland Loves Anime knows, one of the films in competition was well-received until it leaned into age-gap romance.) But the analogy’s still there; a woman’s best friend is a cat, or else a well-behaved schoolboy who respects the boundaries and distances that obsess Shinkai.
For all its adult elements, much of She and Her Cat reads like a book for younger readers. The animal scenes reminded me of Britain’s Colin Dann (The Animals of Farthing Wood, though he wrote cat books, too). Like them, the book acknowledges the cruelty and daily death in the animal kingdom, but with a naïvely earnest tone. The mating of two felines is laughably described as “tying the knot.” Less awkwardly, there’s a benign old dog character who relates cosmic fables about the origin of life and conflict. He’s like a speaker from Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad – perhaps deliberately, as Miyazawa is namechecked in passing.
The book is pleasant but slight in itself. The mixing of talking animals and human life is interesting, but there’s nothing truly new or surprising, certainly none of the shocks and provocations of Shinkai’s recent films. But She and Her Cat is still fascinating for how it reflects on the director’s work, irrespective of whether he wrote it or not. Even at the book’s climax, two cats dash up a snowy hill, drawing a hapless man and woman together for a magic meet-cute. How Shinkai is that?
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. She and Her Cat is published by Penguin Books.