Pet owners all over the world would like to believe their fellow sidekicks in life have the ability to understand their owners. Cat owners in particular are in for a special treat as the hope manifests itself in The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. This is certainly not the first time a story like this has come out of Japan, a country with an inexplicably high number of cat enthusiasts; Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat, written at the turn of the 20th century, is a Japanese classic with a feline protagonist that Arikawa actually refers to in the opening lines of her book. Both cats observe and comment about human behavior, but while Sōseki’s book is a satirical novel, Arikawa’s book focuses more on the love between a cat and its owner.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles is about a man named Satoru Miyawaki, a cat lover by nature, who is looking for a new home for his cat, Nana. Named after its crooked tail, which is in the shape of the number seven, Nana was a stray that liked to sleep on the hood of Satoru’s silver van. After a chance meeting, Satoru would regularly put out food for Nana, but it wasn’t until Satoru got the chance to nurse him back to health after a traffic accident that Nana decided to continue living with him.
Nana is a clever and shrewd cat whose insightful observations about human nature are noticed from the opening pages: “Human beings are basically huge monkeys that walk upright, but they can be pretty full of themselves,” he says. “They leave their cars exposed to the elements, but a few paw prints on the paintwork and they go ballistic.” It is clear in their relationship that Satoru is not his owner; Nana chose to be with him, for the option of returning to life as a stray always remains open since he does not mind returning to it despite its hardships. They are more like equals living together with bonds akin to close friends, roommates or even perhaps that of married couples.
One of the reasons they have such a good rapport with each other is because Satoru is a sensitive being who has an exceptional intuitive ability to read cats. He had owned a cat he loved dearly named Hachi (“eight” in Japanese) when he was a young child. Both cats have a striking resemblance to one another, and the way Nana enters his life seems like a fateful event, for just as Nana began his life with Satoru through a traffic accident, Hachi had died from one.
After five years under his care, Nana and Satoru travel around Japan to visit four of his closest friends from his youth as he considers their eligibility and compatibility with Nana. All of his friends are aware of his love for cats and are puzzled over why he needs to give Nana away, but Satoru explains that it is due to “unavoidable circumstances.” It is only Noriko, his aunt, and Nana, who are aware of the actual reason for his visits. Nana does not see the need for Satoru to find another home for him, but understanding that Satoru had a personal need to go on this journey, he remains open-minded about the prospect of having a new home.
As they visit each of his friends, Nana learns more about Satoru’s past, gains more insight into his character, and assesses the dynamic of the personalities and relationships Satoru had with them. With each visit, Nana evaluates his affinity and ability to live with the prospective candidates:
Kosuke Sawada is a close friend from elementary school and was there for him during a crucial and pivotal time in Satoru’s life. He is currently the owner of a photography studio that used to be his father’s. He and his wife’s relationship is strained because of their difficulty in conceiving a child and his senseless father’s constant badgering. Kosuke’s relationship with his father has always been complicated, and his inability to stand up for himself against his father’s wishes has made him spineless. When Satoru visits him, his wife is absent since she has been living with her parents, and Kosuke hopes having a cat will lure his cat-loving wife back home.
Daigo Yoshimine is a close friend from Satoru’s junior high years. Yoshimine had workaholic parents who were so preoccupied with their careers that they had no time to take care of him, so he transferred to live with his grandmother, who was a farmer. Yoshimine, despite his athletic build, was not interested in sports, but liked to garden. When Satoru found this out, he took the initiative to create a gardening club at the school for Yoshimine’s benefit and for his own curiosity. Yoshimine is currently a farmer. Although he is not as sentimental as Satoru, he sees the practicality of having a cat on a farm and promises to make sure that Nana is well taken care of.
Shusuke Sugi and Chikako are Satoru’s high school and college friends who are now married and own a pet-friendly bed and breakfast near Mount Fuji. Although both were happy at the prospect of seeing him after so many years, Sugi’s anticipation was mixed with dread because he had known since high school that Chikako would have been a perfect match with Satoru. Knowing that Satoru was interested in Chikako, Sugi thwarted this situation from developing by hinting his feelings about her to Satoru, who immediately backed down. His insecurities over his wife’s affections still remain after they get married, and the thought of taking in Nana troubles him.
Through it all, readers are left to wonder, “Was Satoru happy with all his experiences and everything that he went through?”
Arikawa weaves a beautiful tale about friendships among humans and animals as she explores the strengths and weaknesses of human nature through Satoru’s visits. Readers may notice a humanizing aspect of Satoru’s relationship with Nana as their friendship is indirectly compared and contrasted to the close human relationships he has during his life. Nana’s observations and critical remarks about all forms of life will, at the very least, draw a chuckle from the reader, and it also serves as a reminder to everyone that animals should never be underestimated and deserve respect. Arikawa also brings out the joy of travel through their excursions, encouraging readers to experience things outside of their comfort zone.
Perhaps the most important point Arikawa may be making in her book is the importance of social circles. Satoru has an above-average life, but he is, by no means, famous or extraordinary; yet, he has made a lasting imprint on the lives of the people who are closest to him with his inner strength, kindness, goofiness, generosity and thoughtfulness. It reminds us that although most of us will not register a blip in the world at large, we can still make an impact through the people we meet by simply being a supportive friend. A life well-lived does not equate to a life sown with riches and glory, but one filled with meaningful connections, even though it may be a cat.