Manga artist Machiko Kyo — and her 'cat princess', the bashful Mum.

Jan 11, 2011 / Interviews

Photo: Shin Suzuki / Edit&Text: Madoka Hattori / Translation: Seth High

We would like to introduce manga artist Machiko Kyo and her beloved 'Mum'. Machiko Kyo is well-known for her 'Sennen Gaho' blog as well as manga such as 'Cocoon', which she based on the tragic Okinawan WWII story of 'Himeyuri'.Being extremely shy of strangers, it took Mum about 30 minutes to finally poke her head out of the bedroom. Even after finally making an appearance, she did everything possible to avoid the camera - hiding in places such as under the desk and behind the printer. Shin Suzuki, our photographer, eventually had to exert himself by sliding under the desk. After 2 hours of effort, we were finally able to get Mum on film!

A Fateful Online Encounter

—How did you first come across Mum?

Before I was seriously considering getting a cat, I happened to visit the website for a pet shop in Jiyugaoka that specializes in cats. I liked her right away. I soon found myself checking the site every single day to see whether or not someone had bought her. It even started to effect my work (laughs). I realized I had to make a decision. When I finally went to the pet shop, I was about ready to give up. However, the very instant I saw Mum, I told the shop "I'll take her". She came home with me.

—Finding her online by chance, it sounds like you were destined to be together. Had you ever owned a cat before Mum?

Before I began living on my own, my family had two cats - though not at the same time. When I was in elementary school, my homeroom teacher was looking for homes for the kittens that her cat had just given birth to. Because my mother was also a cat lover, we were quickly able to take one in.

—So you have been used to having cats around the house since you were a child?

Yeah, you can say that. Even when I started to live on my own, I always looked for apartments that allowed pets. I've long assumed that working alone at home could become a sort of 'dead end' for me. Having a cat around acts as a kind of emotional cushion and provides me with a healthy diversion. Mum's arrival in my life has definitely filled a void.

—In your dialogue with the writer Seiko Matsuda, the one featured in the special edition of Waseda Bungaku Press, the two of you talked about the process of 'writing then petting the cat, writing then petting the cat'. Please tell us about Mum's character.

As far as personality goes, Mum is totally a 'princess'. Though she is shy around strangers like today, Mum normally acts likes royalty. This is her kingdom.

—How did you come up with the name 'Mum'?

Well, I really like the Icelandic band called Mum. Moreover, when I first held her at the pet shop, she was sleeping. Yet, she was making some cute noises with her mouth that reminded me of the Japanese sound called 'munya munya'. This is kind of close to 'Mum'.

—On Twitter(@machikomemo), when Mum appears in your tweets, you kind of present her as possessing much ennui and a rather sultry nature. Her face seems to be very expressive.

When I first started doing Twitter, my tweets were like anybody else's. However, as a writer, I don't really like sharing my life exactly how it really is. So I decided to add a slightly fictional element by letting Mum become my sort of alter-ego.

—Though Mum's long hair and drooping ears are her most notable characteristics, her pink nose and paw pads give her a kind of sexy aura. Don't you think?

I'm crazy for pink noses! They melt me. Mum's eyes also have a kind of pattern that make it look like she's wearing eyeliner. She has definitely got a lot of feminine appeal!

Cats and People: Mutual Best Friends

ーIs it hard to live alone and own a cat?

When I have to go out or travel, I will ask a friend or a pet shop to take care of her. However, because I work so much at home, it is usually not a problem. However, the one thing I need help with is giving her a bath. She gets nervous and kind of freaks out a little.

—Have you considered getting a second cat?

Because Mum seems to be set on being the only princess in the castle, I had to give up entertaining such thoughts. There is a metaphor that goes something like,"If a girl has an older brother, she can adapt to new siblings. However, if the first born is a girl, she will never welcome others..."

—What kind of distance do you think there should be between cats and their owners?

A person should never be a slave to their cat. I feel we are each others' best friends. The only thing that Mum is overly selfish about is getting brushed, which I do five or six times a day for her. She also goes out of her way to get my attention. When I ignore her because I'm busy with work, she will come over and stand on top of my papers. Due to the fact that it is just so cute, I'll usually give in and end up preparing her some food (laughs). Mum also gets concerned whenever she can't see me - like when I am taking a bath. The minute I come back into the room, she welcomes me with some hearty meowing.

—Is there any particular cat food that you prefer?

I only get her the crunch stuff. Usually, I buy 'Royal Canin', which the pet shop recommended because it prevents hair balls in adult cats. Because my previous cat was extremely picky, I got in the habit of sticking with a type of food until the cat clearly showed that it wanted something else. Mum, on the other hand, seems to be much more interested in water in comparison with food. If she sees anything with water in it, she'll take a swing at it with her paws. I think she likes the shiny reflections that water makes. She'll playfully shake any container holding water just to watch it shimmer.

—What kind of innovations have you come up with regarding things like toilet training and toys?

I keep her litter box in the entryway. This keeps the stink away from my workspace and allows some fresh air to come in every time the door is opened. As for toys, I buy a variety of cat-teasers and things. However, she seems to prefer things like balled up pieces of paper (laughs). She also likes packing twine. Because my room is not so large and I am worried about her getting enough exercise, I also got her a 'cat tower' to play on. She spends a lot of time in a cat bed that I made for her out of a shoe box. In the summer, I usually place it on the windowsill. Likewise, I put it by the heater during winter.

Cats and the Job of a Manga Artist

—It seems like there are so many manga artists and writers who own cats. Do you also read many books and comics that feature cats?

Generally, I don't buy many manga. However, I do read through and buy a lot of works featuring cats. My favorite is 'Junji Ito's Cat Diary - Yon and Mu'. Because Junji Ito is known for his horror stories, his manga have a kind of scary image. However, his 'Cat Diary' shows what its really like to live with cats - all the humorous situations that come up. I even cried at the end. For the dialogue that I had with Mr. Ito that was featured in the magazine'Manga Erotics F Vol. 666' (Ota Shuppan), I was able to go over to his house and play with the actual cats that appear in his comics! As for my own work, I have been writing a light-hearted manga called 'Nekojigen' ('The Cat Hour') for the special edition of Bungei Shunju (Bungei Shunju). Pretty soon, I think 'Nekojigen' will be collected and released in a single edition.

—What triggered you to write a manga about cats?

After I began tweeting and writing about Mum, my editor came to me and suggested a cat-based manga. To be honest, I thought that it might be good for my career to strike a balance between light-hearted works and the serious themes that I have already taken up. 'Nekojigen' is written in a cute and quite informal manner. By keeping the stories mellow, I try to let a feeling of innocence pervade the work.

—On your 'Sennen Gaho' blog, you seem to put up new work every single day.

Though it is difficult to write or draw everyday, I believe that there is power in producing volume. I'm not talking about 'effort'. There is actual value in letting things pile up. Through volume, it becomes easier to separate the good and the bad. Manga is stylistically subjective. People have different tastes. However, if I say, "I drew 1,000 pictures", everyone will feel the impact of my statement.

—Last year, your work titled 'COCOON' was released. Based on the Okinawan WWII tragedy of Himeyuri, the work was quite shocking.

In complete contrast to the 'adolescent' and 'cute' touches that have been added to manga until now, I don't shy away from offering grotesque death scenes. Because there are no other manga artists of my generation that write war comics, I think my fans were also surprised by 'Cocoon'. A lot of people told me it was different from what they expected. It is usually thought that it takes some kind of extra motivation to write a war-based manga, such as having a grandmother who was an atomic bomb victim, or being from a famous battlefield like Okinawa. With neither of these being the case for me, I feel this work was a considerable challenge for me. When the project supervisor, who is from Okinawa, first came to me with the plan, I thought, 'Why do I have to write this?' However, I must say that I am very pleased with the result.

—Did writing about such a heavy topic change you in any way?

Consciously tackling any big theme is bound to, don't you think? I kind of feel that it gave me new freedom regarding the writing of fiction. I think that inside of everyone, there is a kind of fixation concerning how we write about war. We believe it must be totally based on reality. However, I don't think we have to be bound to this impulse. Though we should of course respect the people who lost their lives, I feel it is possible to handle the 'war story' motif without having experienced a war. A lot of people don't do this because they feel it is too difficult. For me, however, writing about painful things expanded the possibilities of the story.

—Are you implying that it is okay to read 'Cocoon' as fiction?

'Cocoon is half fact and half fiction. Every reader will interpret it differently. Some people will merely read it as an entertaining comic book while others will see it as an anti-war manga. Of course, I didn't consciously write it with an anti-war message in mind. I feel it's just a story that takes up the topic of war. I do think it is easy to take an anti-war message away from the story. However, because the message is actually very unclear, someone who reads through it quickly will probably not find any message in it at all. Because there are a variety of ways to interpret the story, I have found that a lot of the people who read 'Cocoon' get a strangely unsettled feeling after finishing.

—Have you already decided on your next theme?

My next work will be based on the 'Diary of Anne Frank'. Don't you feel that a lot of the manga for girls in Japan are set in some sort of vaguely Western place? I want to try expressing this peculiar world. As a sequel to 'Cocoon', this work will be published in 'Elegance Eve' (Akita Shoten) sometime around March. Actually, I am about to leave on a trip to Holland and Auschwitz in order to do some background fieldwork. The research I did in Okinawa was a huge challenge. However, I think it will be interesting to present a different side of the same war.

  • name: Mum
  • age: 1 year, 7 months
  • sex: Female
  • lind: Scottish Fold
  • Machiko Kyo
    - Manga artist
    - Received 'Outstanding Work' Awards from the Review Committee of the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
    - Works include: 'Sennen Gaho' and 'Sennen Gaho 2' (Ota Shuppan), 'Mikako-san' (Kodansha), 'The 100th Sheep' (Kosaido Shuppan), 'Seki and Lala's Junior High Exam' (Mikuni Shuppan), 'Wishing on the Tanabata Star Committee' (Kawade Shobo Shinsha), 'Cocoon' (Akita Shoten)
    - Unrivaled lover of cats
    - Blogger ('Kyo Machiko's Sennen Gaho'