Japanese cinema and television shows are filled with ‘healing’ (iyashikei) images of cats. Cat actors in these live-action shows and films frequently adorn narratives that allow viewers to consume their kittenish cuteness, their languid decorativeness, or their playful viciousness for healing purposes. AMG Entertainment’s Cat in the Taxi (Neko takushi, Tōru Kamei, 2010), for example, uses a calico cat character (usually sleeping) in its front passenger seat to facilitate interactions between a taciturn taxi-driver and his socially disenfranchised customers. However, when cats are animated in Japan, these consumption practices change. The empire Sanrio has built around the globally successful and iconic Hello Kitty is the most obvious example of how cats have been commodified. Hello Kitty’s endless replication across generations, merchandise, and even national identities signals the capacity inherent in drawn cats for commercial exploitation (McVeigh 2000).
Anime has long made an art out of cat characters. Most obviously, fantastical sidekick cats from Pokemon’s Meowth to Kiki’s familiar Jiji in Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) to Luna in Sailor Moon. These anime cats vary across time and genres but are perhaps exemplified in characters like Madara (called Nyanko-sensei by Natsume) from Natsume’s Book of Friends (Natsume Yūjinchō, Takahiro Ōmori, and Kotomi Deai, 2008-2017). Madara—modeled on a maneki-neko lucky cat who can transform into a multi-tailed fox-like god—has performed the role of sidekick and protector to the titular main character of Natsume’s Book of Friends, while also becoming a merchandising star in Japan. Madara consistently appears in the show’s merchandise, and does so more prominently than any other character, helping to sustain Natsume’s Book of Friends and generating media mix around the television show (Steinberg 2012). If Madara and Hello Kitty represented the only ways cats appeared in anime, they would provide much fodder for discussion of the animal in anime. But, more recently, a new breed of cat has been appearing in anime.
It is a kind of cat that defies physical reality. It is a kind of cat the takes the idea of consumption to strange new worlds of grotesquery and cuteness (kawai-sa). These cats are hybrid cats, and they are not just cats: they are food. Bananya (Kyō Yatate, 2016 and 2019) and Donyatsu (created by Yūsuke Kozaki, anime 2013) were born out of two separate and distinct production trends in anime. Bananya started life as mascots for the Q-Lia stationery company before crowdsourcing helped to transform the characters into an anime series (Pineda 2016). Dōnyatsu, by contrast, was initially a manga in videogame company Square Enix’s Young Gangan (2011) and was later adapted into anime by an anime studio named Gathering. Is this an example of convergent kawaii anime cat evolution; or, something entirely more grotesque?
Despite their separate paths to anime, Bananya and Dōnyatsu have a lot in common. First, they are far shorter than typical TV anime, clocking in at under 5 minutes per episode. Second, each signals its cat-based world-building in a title that includes a pun on the Japanese for ‘meow’ – ‘nyan’. Third, and most importantly, each features a unique world of hybridized cats – banana-cats in the case of Bananya (see Figure 1) and doughnut- or bagel-cats in the case of Dōnyatsu. It is this hybridization of pet-animal and food that makes these characters both purposefully and simultaneously cute and grotesque.
At first glance, then, these are hybrids that foreground the consumable nature of pet-animals. The banana skins peel back in Bananya to reveal interior-kittens whose bottom halves remain bananas, requiring them to bounce around the animated kitchen in which the show is typically set. Despite each being wrapped in a uniformly animated banana skin, each kitten and adult banana-cat is differentiated from those around it, reinforcing its original role as mascot. Each is additionally accorded personality traits through a voice-over that highlights their distinguishing features (‘Bananyako, everyone’s Madonna. Wait, no, Madonnya’, ‘Long-haired Bananya, who is busy grooming his fur as usual’). In Donyatsu, by contrast, the cats speak for themselves using human speech, and their hybridization with bread-based foodstuffs is explained by their existence in a post-apocalyptic world. These hyper-consumable representations of cats present a variation on existing debates about anthropomorphism and zoomorphism in animation (Holliday 2018). This is not straightforward anthropomorphism or zoomorphism—the representation of an inanimate object or animal form with degrees of human characteristics (Wells 2008). In some ways, these hybrid food-cats present us with an inversion of the nature/culture divide that Paul Wells interrogates in his work on animated animals (2008: 32). They offer us, instead, a nature-culture combination that hybridizes traits of food with traits belonging to pet-animals. In this way, the banana-cats and doughnut-cats of these shows become emblematic for the way animals are consumed by humanity: not just subordinated, but also literally edible in a way that is likely to invoke horror for vegans and cat-owners alike. In the case of animation, this extremity is compounded by off-screen merchandising and mascot-roles that make these characters literally consumable and not just metaphorically.
The variation in these food-cats is thrown into relief by the way humanity encroaches into their narratives. In the case of Bananya, the animators present a world in which banana-cats hide in domestic spaces and emerge when humans are absent. This is a refrain that runs through the history of animation and children’s storytelling, from The Borrowers (Mary Norton 1952) to Fraggle Rock (Jim Henson, 1983-87). However, the show’s animal-documentary-style voice-over narration is used to suggest an educative anthropocentric enclosure of the banana-cat narrative. This comes complete with endings that use a book with that episode’s new Bananya characters as a recap on the episode’s events. The male voice-over by Yoshikazu Ebisu—a famous manga author in his own right—insists upon the cuteness of the cats and their separation from the rest of the foodstuff in the kitchen space where they are frequently pictured. The transgressive and grotesque potential of the Bananya characters is thereby contained and made safe through authoritative, (human) omniscient narration. By contrast, the characters of the Dōnyatsu world are far more transgressive. Their post-apocalyptic world is free from humans. Therefore, the anthropocentric consumption of cakes and bagels does not trouble this new food-cat-chimera, who sits at the top of their world’s food chain. Their human voices, though, and human lifestyles and concerns suggest a lingering anthropomorphism in the new food-cat civilization. By making cats into food, anime foregrounds the way humanity interacts with animals and how we treat them as consumable objects. In a time when one can eat edible versions of Hello Kitty at cafes across Japan, Bananya and Dōnyatsu play with the commodification of cats in the consumer society. In the end, Dōnyatsu suggests, we may all mutate into anime food-cats.
Holliday, Christopher. 2018. The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
McVeigh, Brian. 2000. ‘How Hello Kitty Commodified the Cute, Cool and Camp: ‘Consumotopia’ Versus ‘Control’ in Japan.’ Journal of Material Culture vol. 5(2): 225-245.
Pineda, Rafael Antonio. 2016. ‘Q-Lia’s Banana Cat Character Bananya get Crowdfunding for TV Anime.’ Anime News Network. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-02-03/q-lia-banana-cat-character-bananya-gets-crowdfunding-for-tv-anime/.98267 (last accessed 5 Nov 2019).
Steinberg, Marc. 2012. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wells, Paul. 2008. The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Rayna Denison is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia where she teaches and researches on anime. She is the author of Anime: A Critical Introduction and the editor of Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess. Her anime-related articles can be found in Japan Forum, Cinema Journal, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal and she is the co-editor of a special issue on Transnational Animation for the SAS’s Animation Studies journal.