Kaibyo by Zack Davisson
Explore the wondrously creepy and informative world of Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan.
Zack Davisson is an award-winning translator, writer, lecturer and scholar of manga, Japanese folklore and ghosts. He maintains the popular HYAKUMONOGATARI.COM. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington, with his wife Miyuki, their dog Mochi, cats Bagheera and Sheer Khan—and several ghosts.
What pops into your mind when you hear the words cat and Japan in the same sentence? Is it Hello Kitty, the big-eyed British schoolgirl who is not, in fact, a cat? That’s right, there’s no kitty in Hello Kitty, though there are plenty of real cats and cat-like creatures in contemporary Japanese pop culture. If you love the cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro, Jiji fromKiki’s Delivery Service or Luna from Sailor Moon, but yearn to know more about Japan’s magical, mystical cat folklore, pick up a copy of Zack Davisson’s Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan.
Let me start by saying: this book is a visual feast. Davisson is an established translator and a specialist in the world of yurei (幽霊), “mysterious phenomena” that include a wide, weird range of things, from ghosts and goblins to river spirits and awe-inspiring deities—and, yes, cats. This book highlights them all: sexy cats, shape-changing cats, vampire cats, faithful fighter cats and hellfire-wearing, corpse-eating cats. And when the fur flies and blood spills, you won’t have to imagine any of it, because the book includes full colour images of all kinds of mystical mischief, mostly reproductions of books and woodblock prints from the Edo period (1600–1868), the heyday of the Japanese yurei. Think Hokusai’s Great Wave print, but replace the wave with a giant, toothy kitty, and put terrified, intricately attired samurai in those little boats. Or picture a cat courtesan strumming a shamisen, that elegant traditional instrument that—spoiler alert—is best made with a perfectly tanned feline hide.
While the book is a joy for anyone into traditional Japanese art, there are also plenty of authentic anecdotes about the various supernatural cats of bygone days, so don’t overlook this tome if you or someone you know is a crazy cat lady. The animal emphasis here is real, and the stories included are a mix of reprinted English hearsay from the big boys of the 1900s, like Lafcadio Hearn—complete with quirky spelling and cultural biases—and texts from feudal Japan, translated by Davisson with an eye to contemporary tastes. These loosely linked cat anecdotes make the book easy to read in small bites. Dip your whiskers in one or two stories, then walk away for a couple days, and when you return the book still holds its magical appeal.
Kaibyō is also great for budding Japanese learners, because the stories are interspersed with sidebars that break down the kanji for each of the key words. The sidebars are unobtrusive for anyone uninterested in the finer points of the Japanese language, so if you’re content focused, you can easily read about the history of the Maneki Neko— that cute white cat that waves at you from shop windows and cash registers—and tell your friends about it at next week’s happy hour. But if you want to know whatmaneki neko means, and how it’s written, well, Davisson’s got you covered.
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