English, Please!: The Star of Cottonland
August 12, 2011
Yumiko Oshima – 7 volumes – shoujo – Lala – 1978-1987
So, when I re-designed the site, I took down my Most Wanted Licenses page. It was updated sporadically, and it never felt that good to add something new to it since there was no way to call attention to it. So instead, I split it up and am making the old content part of my new Friday features stuff. Hopefully it’ll be something I can put on a monthly rotation. In terms of license requests, David Welsh already does this every Friday, and he has much better taste than me, so if you want to read about stuff that would actually be a good idea to license, I suggest taking a look at his choices. I suspect stuff I’m going to highlight will have zero chance of being licensed.
Anyway! On to the first choice!
Whenever I see anyone mention Chi’s Sweet Home I get a little sad, because it only reminds me that I can’t read the Star of Cottonland in English. I’m sure they’re nothing alike (I’ve never read Chi’s Sweet Home), but I think that What’s Michael and Chi could use some company in the category of English-language manga about the lives of cats. And who better to join them than the original nekomimi/catgirl? Would you believe that phenomenon started off utterly innocent and adorable?
The Star of Cottonland is a series of short stories in the life of a cat named Kitten. Kitten is adopted in the first chapter by a boy named Tokio, whose mother hates cats but learns to love Kitten. The chapters are somewhat slice-of-life stories about Kitten wandering around the neighborhood and encountering everyday things that seem extraordinary to her. What makes this series unique is that everything is from Kitten’s point of view, and to Kitten and all other cats in the story, they are just small people. All the cats are drawn to look like people, but how they act, the things they are interested in, and the things they say are all extremely feline. Kitten is always a little girl in a frilly dress and socks with cat ears.
We also see proper gentlemen cats, cat queens, hobo cats, and all sorts of others.
And because they are cats through and through, we don’t get stories about wise cats solving the problems of humanity, but rather stories about Kitten stealing fish from the store and later getting stuck away from home during a thunderstorm. The novelty of the human cats never wore off for me.
The one-shot stories themselves are adorable. Some are about Kitten and Tokio and his family, some are about other humans Kitten encounters as she wanders around outside, and some are just about her adventures and interactions with other cats, people, nature, life, et cetera. Unfortunately I can’t get very specific, because my Japanese is terrible and I only have the first couple tiny hard-to-read bunko editions (this will be a common theme for my English, Please! articles), but mostly it seems like an exploration of human nature and the world in general through the eyes of cats, who are precisely cat-like enough for every pet owner to relate.
One of the main things that makes this a pleasure to read is the art. Yumiko Oshima is one of the members of the Year 24 Group, and her art is wonderful. She has a very delicate, spare, and almost scribbly style, with very distinctive character designs. She also makes excellent use of panels and composition. She’s got some of the most unique art of the Year 24 Group, which is probably one of the reasons we’ve never seen her work in English. It can take some getting used to. But her unique character designs really make the different cat characters memorable, and scenes where Kitten is frolicking through nature, or coming to terms with something, really pop due to both the art and composition. I haven’t seen very many of Oshima’s series, but her style is well-suited to this, which may be why it’s considered her signature work.
I imagine the mix of strange-looking art and reflective/ponderous story is probably like poison to English-language publishers (especially since the story is originally for children and not a hip slice-of-life tale), but the relatively short 7-volume length of the series gives me hope. The recent Moto Hagio volume from Fantagraphics makes me fantasize about an omnibus treatment for this one. I believe Viz gets first dibs on Hakusensha series (maybe not?), but I’m hoping it’ll show up elsewhere if there’s interest.
Kitten appears in other places, such as an adorable and very classic 1984 anime movie adaptation of the series from Mushi Pro. There’s also a more recent “sequel” to The Star of Cottonland called Chibineko (Kitten’s name, which… you know, literally translates as “small cat”). The original Star of Cottonland series is available in seven regular tankouban volumes, 15 child-sized volumes (I guess thinner and bigger?), and four tiny bunkouban volumes, which may be the only edition currently in print. Chibineko is available in one big 300-page volume. The movie isn’t available in English, but is out on DVD in Japan.