A ronin is a wandering samurai who has no lord or master, but what if they lost their master and are seeking to find them? Enter Stray Cat Samurai, a wandering injured cat who wants the nightmare of being a stray to end. He must vanquish other cats who stand in his way, but most navigate the wild world. Sounds unique right? Let’s dive in.
Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics)
So what’s it about? For the full Kodansha summary just read this:
In medieval Japan, it’s a hard life for a stray cat. Every day is filled with struggles and prejudice, from oppression by fellow cats working for cruel masters to extortion by catnip druglords. But being a stray also means incredible pride and independence. The wandering samurai Norachiyo has no master, though he still wears the telltale bell of a cat who has a “person.” This rogue warrior travels across Japan, protecting the weak and cutting down those who have forgotten the virtues of being a stray – all with unrivaled swordsmanship. Although Norachiyo leaves little trace but his fearsome reputation, this enigmatic warrior has made plenty of enemies who are more than willing to get their claws on his head. Will Norachiyo’s past catch up with him, or can he spend his nine lives in freedom?
Why does this book matter?
It’s pretty simple, if you’re a cat person you’re going to want to at least peek inside this first volume. It takes everything you love about cats and turns it into a philosophical concept or a pun. It turns catnip into a drug, uses the concept of the lords in ancient Japan as human masters, and tells a tale of how hard it is for wild cats. The premise just makes sense.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
It’s all about the bell.
Though this tale follows a samurai story you’ve seen hundreds of times before (reluctant hero, incredibly fast and violent, quiet somber samurai) the cat angle gives the premise a breath of fresh air. The very concept of cat ownership as feudal Japan is a clever one. Whenever characters mention the concept of humans you’ll be intrigued, even though there’s no sight of a human in this book. Instead, it’s as if the humans are gods the cats wish to have as owners so that they can live a violence-free, heavenly lifestyle. Much like in the real world, if a cat who has had an owner is let loose their lives are numbered because staying alive is difficult for them.
Catnip, the allure of bells, and other domesticated cat lifestyle elements are introduced well and integrate seamlessly in a samurai type story. Along the way there are some good reveals of who the protagonist is and the hard road he’s travelled. He’s injured, beaten, and dealing with some kind of addiction and that enhances the mystery of his backstory. Hiroyuki Takei keeps the story somewhat light with the connections to the cat world, but reminds you this world is still deadly serious.
The art has a grittier, dirtier style than most manga which suits the setting since it was a hard life back in feudal Japan. The world seems to be a bit broken since the cat masters went to war and it shows. Hiroyuki Takei uses plenty of texture to convey the imperfect world and when violence kicks in you’ll be stricken by its almost abstract nature. Using splashes of ink for instance, you get the sense that blood is spraying everywhere.
It can’t be perfect can it?
Unfortunately, when there is action it’s sometimes impossible to understand what is happening. Though tales like this have violence sparingly (it’s all about building up the samurai’s awesomeness rather than showing constant action) it’s frustrating to follow when it kicks into gear. You certainly get the sense that incredibly vicious violence is taking place, but it makes some pages too obscure to enjoy.
The overall pace of the book is somewhat slow too. I was driven along deeply interested in how this world works (and where the humans are), and the protagonist certainly goes through a lot in this volume, the character doesn’t learn or grow much at all. It seems a Wolverine effect is taking place where less is more, but with so much teasing and mystery you’ll be aching for answers.
Stray Cat Samurai takes the very tired world of the samurai and makes it feel new again. The genre feels fresher for it. Unfortunately the action is sometimes impossible to understand and the narrative progresses too slowly, but it’s hard not to be taken by its unique charm.