Come for the cat, stay for the cartooning — that’s how I’d summarize the appeal of Chi’s Sweet Home, a deceptively simple story about a family that adopts a wayward kitten. Chi certainly works as an all-ages comic, as the clean, simple layouts do a good job of telling the story, even without the addition of dialogue or voice-overs. But Chi is more than just cute kitty antics; it’s a thoughtful reflection on the joys and difficulties of pet ownership, one that invites readers of all ages to see the world through their cat or dog’s eyes and imagine how an animal adapts to life among humans.
Though Kanata Konami accomplishes some of this by revealing Chi’s thoughts in the form of a simple monologue, delivered — or should that be “dewivered”? — in a child-like voice, it’s the artwork that really drives home the point that Chi is bewildered and intrigued by her new environment. Early in the volume, for example, the newly-rescued Chi awakes in a panicked state: she doesn’t know where she is, and she’s desperate to find her mother. Konami first gives us an overhead view of the living room, tracing Chi’s frantic attempt to find the door, then cuts to a panel of Chi trapped against a wall, two pieces of furniture looming over her. Konami employs a similar tactic when Mr. Yamada takes Chi to the veterinarian for her first check-up, again using an overhead shot of the waiting room to establish the human scale of the space before offering a cat’s eye perspective; as Chi sees things, the vet’s office is filled with enormous, Godzilla-sized dogs who seemed poised to eat her. In both sequences, the quick shift in perspective gives the reader a clear sense of Chi’s disorientation by reminding us how small she is, and how alien the environment seems to her.
The other secret to Konami’s success are her character designs. Though Chi is clearly a cat, Konami draws her face as a round, moon-like shape with two enormous eyes — if anything, Chi resembles the heroine of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! more than, say, Neko Ramen‘s cat cook or Cat Paradise‘s feline warriors. Like Azuma, Konami demonstrates that it’s possible to contort and bend these simple, circular shapes into an enormous range of expressions, from wide-eyed wonder to fear, sadness, and, for want of a better term, hunterly attentiveness. (Chi considers all of her cat toys a form of prey.) Even the very youngest reader will immediately understand how Chi is feeling, even if he isn’t able to parse the accompanying text or make sense of other imagery. (To wit: there’s a marvelous, trippy dream sequence in which Chi is pursued by what could best be described as a canine matryoshka, a chain of barking dogs, each a smaller imitation of the one before it. I don’t know what a four-year-old would make of it, but Chi’s reaction is priceless.)
Given the strength of Konami’s artwork, I would have liked Chi’s Sweet Home even better without the voice-overs. Most of Chi’s comments seem obvious — cats usually fear dogs and vets — or deliberately calculated to tug at the heartstrings. Interior monologues of this kind are generally more effective when they ascribe uniquely human sentiments to an animal: think of Snoopy’s Walter Mitty-esque fascination with the Red Baron, or Garfield’s contempt for Jon Arbuckle, which stems less from a general disdain of humans and more from Garfield’s embarrassment that his owner is a loser. Chi’s voice-overs aren’t a deal-breaker by any means; at times, they prove quite effective, especially in illustrating Chi’s gradual transference of affection from her feline mother to her human family. Moreover, Konami wisely avoids putting words into Chi’s mouth that suggest an unnatural awareness of human behavior or language, allowing Chi to remain completely oblivious to the Yamadas’ numerous attempts to find her a new home. (Their apartment complex doesn’t allow pets.)
If you’re the kind of person who unironically refers to children and housepets as “social parasites,” Chi’s Sweet Home is not the manga for you. But if you’re ever lived with a cat or a dog or any other animal whose companionship you enjoyed, then you’ll find a lot to like about Chi, from its frank treatment of housebreaking and separation anxiety to the numerous scenes of Chi exploring her surroundings, transforming ordinary household items into “prey.” You don’t need to be a manga lover, either, to find Chi’s Sweet Home accessible; the simple artwork and flipped layout (Chi reads left to right, like an English-language book) make this a great place for newbies to begin their exploration of the medium. Highly recommended for readers of all ages.
Volume one will be released on June 29, 2010. Review copy provided by Vertical, Inc.
CHI’S SWEET HOME, VOL. 1 • BY KONAMI KANATA • VERTICAL, INC. • 162 pp. • NO RATING
Jade saysJune 24, 2010 at 5:09 pm
Children are certainly social parasites, but how could anyone ever think the same about pets?
I’m glad you were able to get over your cold and unwavering disdain of cats enough to deliver this review though. I’ve really been looking forward to this book, but most of what I’ve read on it has been, ‘Xxx Xxxxx says this book is totally rad. It must be true!’ That’s one thing I can’t stand about the blogosphere, the little talking heads and cult of personality that start burbling up despite being the last thing anyone wants.
Katherine Dacey saysJune 24, 2010 at 7:45 pm
Actually, my next door neighbor’s cat has been doing a lot to raise my opinion of the species — he’s a beautiful, friendly Maine coon cat who seems to think he’s a dog. My dog has chased him a couple of times, but they seemed to have reached a kind of d’etante, so it’s all good.
As for Chi, I really try not to jump on the bandwagon for hotly anticipated books. I think I’m the only person in the entire blogosphere who wasn’t bowled over by A Drifting Life, for example, even though everyone from NPR to Bill’s Excellent Manga Blog was calling it the Best Manga Ever.
Michelle Smith saysJune 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm
“Moreover, Kanata wisely avoids putting words into Chi’s mouth that suggest an unnatural awareness of human behavior or language, allowing Chi to remain completely oblivious to the Yamadas’ numerous attempts to find her a new home.”
This is a really good point! Chi is allowed to remain an innocent kitty and not some wry commentator upon human foibles.
Also, most of my kitties are rather dog-like. At least, they greet me at the door and follow me around and stuff. I’m rather proud that they’re not aloof.
meli saysJune 25, 2010 at 11:24 am
“Chi” does a good job on the humans…and if you’ve known kitties you’ll know it’s an amazing portrait of kitten!
William George saysJune 26, 2010 at 6:41 am
I’d love this to sell big and lead to a market for cat manga just so someone will reprint “What’s Michael?”
Katherine Dacey saysJune 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm
@Michelle: Just read your review and loved it! I’m guess I’m becoming more pro-cat all the time…
@meli: Good point! I try to strike a balance in my reviews between discussing every aspect of the comic I enjoyed and keeping the review succinct, so I didn’t discuss the way Kanata portrays the Yamadas. But you’re absolutely right; the story wouldn’t work if the humans weren’t also appealing and believable, too.
@Willian: Hear, hear — I would pay good money for a new edition of What’s Michael, especially if it included the strips that were omitted from the original English edition.
Michelle Smith saysJune 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm
@Kate – THanks!
@William – Oh yes, I really really want this. Uncensored and omnibus, ideally! :)
Tom saysJune 27, 2010 at 7:46 am
I think I will have some Chi with my coffee this morning!
DanielBT saysJuly 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm
For those of you wondering what the missing What’s Michael strips looked like, here’s a wonderful mashup of the first two pages:
The remaining four pages will be shown in another parodied strip in the future. (When the site starts showing my Mailman strips, that’s a clue that it’ll be showing up soon) In the meantime, another revamped version of the 3rd comic is available at my blog.
I didn’t include the second Michael strip, which basically had a cat “acting” around a naked woman for the entirety of the strip. Seriously, there’s no getting around that. I can see why Dark Horse didn’t print it. Either the entirety of the book would be considered too “risique” for children to read, or the purists would complain if the woman was covered up.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm
Thanks for the links, Daniel! Sounds like the censored Michael strips just wouldn’t jive with an all-ages rating, even though the material doesn’t sound especially racy. Americans have a particular hysteria about nudity, even when it isn’t sexual.