Figure 1. Artist Nekojiru with a cat.

The work of manga artist Nekojiru is distinctive for two key characteristics: short stories that contrast cuteness with cruelty, and the use of anthropomorphized cats as protagonists. This includes her autobiographical works, Jirujiru Ryokouki (Jirujiru Travelogue) and Jirujiru Nikki (Jirujiru Diary), in which she has drawn herself as a cat in a world surrounded by humans. But her most well-known characters are the kitten siblings Nyaako and Nyatta, whose adventures have been adapted into anime form twice. The first has been Nekojiru Gekijou (Nekojiru Theatre) (1999), a series of one- or two-minute-long animations. The second has been Cat Soup (2001), a surrealistic half-hour film written and produced a few years after her death by suicide in 1998.

Nekojiru had a history of depression, which her friend Yoshinaga Yoshiaki believes originated at some time in her youth when she was still living with her family1. The people who knew her in life say that she was blunt and unconcerned with social etiquette. She had difficulty making eye contact but also tended to stare at people without realizing it made them uncomfortable, and according to her husband, she had sensory issues related to raw meat and fish2. Given these behaviors, it is possible that she was on the autistic spectrum. If true, this would cast her use of cats as protagonists in a new light. Nekojiru’s cats and other animal characters do not exist separately from humans, but alongside them, and this contrast serves to emphasize their otherness – they are in the world, but not of it, and as such the rules and expectations that are considered normal by most people do not make sense to them. It is interesting, too, that Nekojiru’s cat persona from Jirujiru Ryokouki and Jirujiru Nikki is identical to her depiction of Nyaako – a small, bipedal cat with a short-sleeved blouse and black pinafore, and through whose eyes we generally understand the stories of Nekojiru Gekijou. With this in mind, perhaps Nekojiru found cute, cartoonish cats to be an ideal proxy for her to express and explore how she perceived her place in the world around her – like a little alien functioning in a world that was frustrating because so much of it didn’t make sense.

The structure of Nekojiru Gekijou is fairly consistent: Nyaako and Nyatta are taking part in a fairly normal activity – playing with friends, riding on public transport, shopping with their mother – and proceedings quickly turn bad, if not outright brutal, either through the siblings’ own behavior or with them as witnesses. Regardless of what happens, Nyaako and Nyatta rarely display any kind of shock or horror or even a full understanding of what has happened or why. In one episode, the siblings watch their father slaughter their pig friend so that their mother can make tonkatsu, and in response, Nyaako nonchalantly comments: “Oh, so pork is just a pig’s corpse.” In another, they see an elderly man in a grocery store drop a packet of ochazuke seasoning; when he doesn’t notice Nyaako trying to give it back, she slips it in his back pocket. The cashier spots the seasoning, the man is stopped and dragged away in a headlock for shoplifting, and Nyaako simply says: “So that old guy was a thief.”

Unlike Nekojiru Gekijou, Cat Soup was produced entirely posthumously. With the exception of a scene where the kittens visit a circus, it does not adapt any of the original manga. Nekojiru’s husband, who has continued her manga after her death, had no involvement in the production, aside from giving director Satou Tatsuo his blessing to make it. Satou has stated that the film was intended as a tribute to Nekojiru and that he and Yuasa Masaaki (the co-writer and animation producer) “wanted to create a visualization which would be parallel to her world”3. Instead of walking the line between childhood innocence and harsh adulthood, the kittens explore the worlds of life and death. In the opening scene, Nyatta is playing with a toy car in the bath while Nyaako, in bed with a fever, quietly passes away. The Buddhist patron deity of dead children, Jizou, appears and leaves with her soul. Nyatta chases after them and tries to drag Nyaako home, but her soul is torn in half. Nyatta returns the half-soul to Nyaako’s body and she is partially resurrected. The pair then embark on a surreal journey through a series of Dali-esque scenes, including a bird that has swallowed the sky, a robotic man who tries to make the kittens into soup, and a God-like figure who manipulates time and eats the world. Finally, they find a flower in a tin forest that restores Nyaako’s soul, and they return home. However, as the film concludes, the characters gradually blink out of existence before the screen cuts to static.

Commenting on Nekojiru’s death, Katou Hiroko from Putao magazine said, “I imagined that she completely understood the truth of this world, so she chose to leave it”4. The overriding theme of Cat Soup, as confirmed by Satou5, is that the kittens are ultimately at the mercy of a present but disinterested higher power. While Satou and Yuasa only considered Nekojiru’s work to be a starting point for Cat Soup, perhaps they inadvertently touched on a wider theme of which Nekojiru herself was conscious: life is strange, perilous and unfair; we are all just cats trying to make sense of the world, and all we can do is keep moving.

Leah Holmes is an MPhil candidate at Bath Spa University, researching the history, dynamics, and evolution of anime fandom in the UK. She has been an active participant in UK anime fandom since 1997 and plans to set up a centralized archive of the fandom’s history as an ongoing project after completing her MPhil. Her other research interests include anime and manga, Japan, and cultural studies.

[1] See Yoshiaki in “Memories of Nekojiru”, Jisatsu Sarechatta Boku by Yoshinaga Yoshiaki, Asuka Shinsha, 2004. English translation by Ben Ettinger, retrieved online at [Accessed 10 October 2019].

[2] See “The Death of Nekojiru”, Kansai TV, circa 2001. Retrieved online at [Accessed 10 October 2019].

[3] Satou in Director’s commentary on US DVD release of Cat Soup, 2003.

[4] Hiroko in “The Death of Nekojiru”, Kansai TV, circa 2001.

[5] Satou in “How to Make Cat Soup” featurette on US DVD release of Cat Soup, 2003.