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She and Her Cat: Makoto Shinkai’s Debut Novel Review

Nobody captures life’s beauty like Makoto Shinkai. I remember watching Your Name in the cinema in 2016, completely mesmerised by the vitality onscreen. Shinkai is able to illustrate large-scale events like comet crashes and complex fantasy sequences, but his true charm lies in his animation of the little things: the glisten of raindrops on leaves, sunlight filtering through trees and windows, the everyday train ride packed with city people. Therefore, I was interested to see whether his magic would translate into prose in his debut novel, She and Her Cat.

Written alongside Naruki Nagakawa and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (who translated Convenience Store Woman), She and Her Cat is a short book about four women in suburban Tokyo with interconnecting lives as they attempt to find solace through their cats. Clearly it’s a story close to Shinkai’s heart: his first short film in 1999 went by the same name and told part of the narrative given here. In 2016, the story reappeared as a mini TV series and was turned into a manga. Now, She and Her Cat has been expanded into a novel, and aims to appeal to fellow cat lovers worldwide.

Chobi is the first cat we are introduced to – the narrative is told from his perspective as Miyu finds him abandoned in a cardboard box on the street, before the story begins to shift back and forth between their voices. Chobi is extremely loyal to Miyu from the start, and proves to be a valuable companion as she faces her own abandonment from her boyfriend and best friend. Then, we encounter Reina, a young aspiring artist who lacks the motivation to develop her talent, and the cat Mimi that drops by her messy apartment to admire her works. The third chapter revolves around Aoi, a manga artist suffering from severe depression due to her grief, and the cat Cookie who comforts her. Finally, we meet Shino, an elderly woman who looks after the tough stray Kuro.

Image courtesy of Doubleday Press.

The book is told from the perspective of all of these women and cats, their lives interweaving. This makes for a sweet story, similar to ‘slice of life’ anime where we are introduced to a range of characters and see how they interact with each other in everyday life; the mundane is given the spotlight and made engaging. However, because this is such a short book, the overall effect of these multitudinous voices is superficial. We do not get enough time to connect with, and therefore truly care for, these characters.

Perhaps Shinkai is more used to films, where one can infuse personality through visuals: a neat hairstyle, a loosened tie, a bold tone of voice, a certain glimmer in one’s eye. These can be expressed in prose, too, but without dynamism, characters can fall flat. We are told that Miyu is ‘beautiful, and kind’ and that ‘[h]er movements’ are ‘relaxed and graceful’ (p.10) from Chobi’s perspective, but we don’t really learn anything profound. It’s fine to have ordinary characters, but Miyu is ordinary in an unremarkable way. In fact, the way that Chobi falls in love with her at first sight and refers to her as his ‘girlfriend’ saturates descriptions of her with some sort of uncomfortable male (albeit, cat) gaze. ‘I liked watching her reflection as she stood in front of the mirror, putting on her make-up…I really loved watching her tie up her long black hair…I listened to the sound of her heels clacking pleasantly…The smell of her perfume still hung in the air’ (pp. 12-13), ‘I felt her slim fingers touching my fur’ (p. 153). The other cats find the extent of his admiration odd later on, but if Chobi is meant to be humorous, it doesn’t come across that way, at least initially. It just illustrates Miyu as an idealised woman without spirit.

It is also fine to focus more on the plot than having complex characters sometimes, especially for a short novel. However, although I was drawn in by the story, I found it overly simple. The characters’ struggles not only lacked originality but were so easily resolved that, although this made the ending satisfying, it was too saccharine for a true depiction of the everyday. What I did appreciate was the interactions between the cats (and the one, wise dog, Jon). It was amusing to read their narratives’ mixture of navigating animal instincts and also having conversations unintelligible to humans. We get a fun insight into their four-footed lives, just not necessarily a deep one.

She and Her Cat is not as compelling and stunning as Shinkai’s films, but it’s a story one can easily escape into for an afternoon: it is cosy, comforting, and unchallenging. Cat lovers will especially appreciate it; although I am one, I cannot say I was enchanted. I personally think that Shinkai is better at making us feel ‘suddenly…sentimental’ when a ‘cherry blossom petal float[s] in on the breeze through the wide-open window’ (p. 153) on the big screen, but his sweet, straightforward writing may be appealing to others.

She and Her Cat is published by Doubleday Press and is available to purchase here.


Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor