Japan is firmly in the grip of an ongoing cat boom, as shown by the popularity of cat-themed media and the plethora of cute products with feline motifs. When it comes to novels, The Traveling Cat Chronicles (旅猫リポート) by Hiro Arikawa is one of Japan's best-loved contemporary works about the bond between animals and humans. In this interview, Arikawa tells us about her books and her love for cats.
When The Traveling Cat Chronicles was released in Japan in 2012, the endearing tale of Nana the cat and his human companion Satoru quickly became a best-seller. The book has since been published in multiple languages, including German, Italian, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The English version came out in 2017, translated by Philip Gabriel. Stellar international sales proved that readers all over the world think that this charming and humorous story is the cat's whiskers. In 2018 the book was made into a well-received film, directed by Kenichiro Miki and starring Sota Fukushi as Satoru.
A Life with Cats
Arikawa was born in Kochi but is now based in Tokyo. While Nana's adventures helped introduce her to an international audience, Arikawa has been releasing books domestically for two decades. Her first novel, Shio no Machi: Wish on My Precious (塩のまち―wish on my precious) won the Dengeki Novel Prize in 2003 and was published the following year.
Fans will be delighted to know that Arikawa's second cat-themed book, The Goodbye Cat (みとりねこ), has just been released in English. Moreover, this collection of seven short stories, once again translated by Gabriel, includes two new stories connected to Nana and Satoru. But no prior knowledge of the first novel is required to enjoy them.
Arikawa shares her thoughts on her new book, filming with animals, and the important part that cats have played in her life — including the real-life "Nana."
Congratulations on the recent English release of The Goodbye Cat. Were you surprised when your previous book, The Traveling Cat Chronicles, became such a big hit overseas?
Thank you. I was pleasantly surprised that Nana had the power to cross international borders. I think Nana has shown us that there are no borders when it comes to story-telling, especially when it involves adorable cats!
The Traveling Cat Chronicles was adapted into a Japanese movie in 2018. Were you involved in the filming?
I supervised the script and supported Tom, the feline actor who played Nana. At first, I was just there to observe, but I couldn't help but notice that Tom and his trainer were having a hard time because the film crew wasn't familiar with cats. And so I came on board as the "assistant trainer." Whenever Nana is looking at something in the movie, that's me with a cat toy, with the trainer's approval. I used my position to advocate for preferential treatment for the cat in the movie.
On the first day of shooting, I told the producer, "If we can't make this movie with a 'cat-first' approach, then let's just quit now!" So then, the film crew prioritized Tom's needs, having a waiting room for him to use on set — even when there wasn't one for the human actors.
The Feline Star
What was it like watching your characters come to life on the big screen?
Tom differs in physical appearance from the cat in the book, but he was perfect for Nana. He had both a strong personality and a vulnerable side, he was inquisitive and, above all, he loved people. He was an amazing actor! While the human cast was wonderful, the real star of the movie was the cat.
For practical reasons, the destination in the story had to be changed. In the novel, Nana and his owner, Satoru, head to a snowy region. But the animal trainer pointed out that cats won't move in such cold conditions. In the movie, they travel to a warm place with canola flowers in bloom. I was in favor of changing the setting rather than subjecting the cat to uncomfortable conditions.
You clearly love and understand cats very well. Did you grow up with them?
When I was a child, we had a very smart and gentle ginger cat. Actually, it wasn't until after that cat passed away and we got a second one, that everyone in the family realized how patient, sweet, and intelligent the first one had been. The fact that he could also be self-entitled and silly at times made him all the more special to us.
What about now?
Currently, my husband and I have an adorable black-and-white cat: Tom — Nana in the movie — joined our household after the filming ended! I continued to visit the production company to see Tom. One day it dawned on me that eventually, the time would come when the trainer would tell me that Tom had passed away. So I asked the trainer to kindly let me be there for Tom's final moments. He said, "You didn't choose Tom. He's chosen you," and he entrusted him to our care. While he's no longer a feline acting genius, Tom has assumed the role of the much-loved prince of our household.
New Cat Tales
Your new book, The Goodbye Cat, is a collection of short stories. Why did you choose this format?
I wanted to write about various relationships between people and cats. Every cat in the world has their own story — destined to share love with humans and be loved in return.
Do you have a favorite among all the stories?
I feel affection for each of the short stories, but "Good Dad — Bad Dad" is based on my father. Although he wasn't particularly fond of cats, towards the end of his life he came out with, "Every cat in the world is cute." The troublesome father in the story is almost identical to my own father, and I was amazed that even my eccentric dad could be captivated by the appeal of cats.
One of my favorites in the book is "Cat Island," about a blended family finding their way after the loss of the boy's mother, set on the island of Taketomi (part of the Yaeyama archipelago, to the southwest of Okinawa). Have you spent time there?
Yes, I went about seven or eight years ago, before Prince Tom joined our household. I visited as part of the research for my book Anmaa and Bokura（アンマーとぼくら）which is also set in Okinawa. I was fascinated by this tranquil island, which is like a kingdom of free-range cats, detached from the rest of the world.
A Cat's View of Life
The cats in your stories impact their owners' lives in a variety of ways. How about you?
The story "The Night Visitor" in The Goodbye Cat includes a glimpse into my bonding period with Tom. If I've been out of the house during the day, he comes flying to me when I return, telling me how lonely he's been. If I've been away for a few days, then he follows me everywhere in the house to keep an eye on me, in case I try to leave again. However, he hasn't yet figured out that humans can't exit the house from the second floor!
What do you think cats can teach us?
People and cats are separate species, yet we can be friends. Cats keep their distance from people or other cats which they don't get along with. They refrain from making eye contact (which could lead to a fight between cats), and can peacefully coexist in the same space. While spending time with close friends is wonderful, maintaining a comfortable distance from people we don't get along with is also essential for well-being. Since cats can do it, I think we humans should try to emulate them.
Finally, can you share any news about your upcoming projects?
My Japanese publisher Kodansha, which released The Traveling Cat Chronicles and The Goodbye Cat, is planning to introduce some of my other works. I write about various topics — not just cats — and I am curious to see if there are other themes that can transcend borders. I believe there might be some surprises there, such as my stories about monsters or military themes, and I hope overseas readers will enjoy them. I'm also working on a new book … albeit with interruptions from Tom!
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Interview by: Louise George Kittaka