The loved and celebrated Japanese novelist Sōseki Natsume (1867-1916) achieved instant success with his first novel, Wagahai wa Nekodearu (I Am a Cat), which was serialized from 1905-1906. It remains one of his best-known works. The new translation of Chiroru Kobato’s Sōseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat: The Manga Edition, then, suggests itself as a natural place for beginners to be introduced to Sōseki’s work.
Kobato’s adaptation was originally published in 2010 as one of the titles of Manga de Dokuha (“Reading Through with Manga”), a commercially successful series of manga versions of classic literature designed for reluctant readers. The Manga de Dokuha series released 139 titles in 10 years, including adaptations of six of Sōseki’s novels.
Unfortunately, it would be difficult to imagine just from reading this adaptation how I Am a Cat had earned its reputation as a biting, sardonic and cynical literary masterpiece. The main strength of the novel, the cat’s running commentary on the goings on in a professor’s house, gets largely trimmed back to make room for the story the cat had commented on, and that rambling story does not add up to much.
Sōseki’s I Am a Cat starts with the narrator-cat’s earliest memory: he is lifted up in the palm of a student’s hand; he chokes on the tobacco smoke that the student exhales; then the student carelessly hurls the cat (just a kitten at that point) away and the kitten awakens abandoned and alone, no longer within sight of his mother and brothers, whom he never sees again. (The nameless student also disappears from the story at this point.)
These first three paragraphs of the novel are the basis for the first four pages of Chiroru Kobato’s manga adaptation. In the manga, the cat is drawn as an irresistibly adorable kitten; the student lifts him up; exhales some smoke but not into the kitten’s face; and then drops the kitten gently back to the ground. On the next page of the manga, the cat realizes that he is alone, abandoned and hungry (but not, as in the novel, in pain and fearing starvation.)
All the sentimentalizing changes do not suffice to make this manga truly suitable for children, since children might find the main, disjointed, unromantic plotline (which involves arranging a marriage for an industrialist’s daughter) confusing and irrelevant. The part that a young reader might find easiest to understand might be how the manga (and novel) strongly endorses the idea of thinking ill of a person because they have a big, ugly nose.
Aspects of Sōseki’s life and career that interest his biographers have been the ways that his life experiences parallel those of some of his characters (in this story, both the unloved cat and the “Sensei” that the cat observes); Sōseki’s perspective as a product of the rapidly changing Meiji period; and (so translators say) the stylistic brilliance that he achieved as a trained scholar of Chinese, Japanese and English literary classics but with an ear for popular, Japanese comic slang.
Although designed as a kind of “Classics Illustrated” educational project, the special features in this manga edition of I Am a Cat do not include much historical background about Sōseki’s life or novel. These features include a two-page “Character Introduction,” briefly describing six people and three cats who have roles in this story; a table of contents; a 125-word summary of the translator’s impressive credentials; a 120-word biographical sketch of the author Sōseki; a sadly uninformative, 25-word paragraph about the artist who has retold and illustrated this story; and, finally, a page about the publisher, Tuttle Publishing.