You don’t have to be a cat person to love this manga. Whether you’ve connected with a dog, a cat, a ferret, or any other pet, Umi Sakurai’s A Man and His Cat will be familiar in the relationship between the eponymous duo, and while elements of these two volumes do feel specific to cats, the overall theme of Sakurai’s work is the way that bringing a pet into your life can help both the human(s) and the animal(s) in question.
The story splits its narration between several characters, but primarily divides the point of view between Mr. Kanda and Fukumaru. It opens with the as-yet-unnamed Fukumaru, an Exotic (basically a short-haired Persian), who has been in the pet store where he was taken to be sold for almost a year. Because of his short face (his nose is squished-looking), he has teary eyes and his markings make him look silly rather than beautiful to most potential owners. Thus, he’s basically given up on ever finding anyone to take him home and love him. All of this changes when one day a distinguished-looking older gentleman walks into the store and instantly asks to hold him. The man very quickly decides that he wants the cat, and before Fukumaru can quite believe his luck, he’s in a home with a name and a man he thinks of as daddy.
As if this isn’t heartwarming enough for pet-loving readers, we learn that Mr. Kanda, the man who brought Fukumaru home, is a widower grieving the sudden (and likely recent) loss of his wife. While he has two children, he doesn’t appear to see them very often, and he’s both sad and lonely in much the same way Fukumaru was. He had promised his late wife that they would get a cat when he returned home from his most recent trip, but that never happened, so now bringing home Fukumaru is both a way for him to connect with the woman he loved and a balm for his heart. That others don’t think Fukumaru is pretty or cute doesn’t matter to him – he felt an instant connection to the cat and as far as Mr. Kanda is concerned, Fukumaru is the most beautiful, adorable animal in existence.
Certainly a large part of these two volumes is devoted to the love between man and cat, but this is kept from veering into corny territory by how familiar Mr. Kanda’s (and Fukumaru’s) behaviors are. Anyone who has ever shared a bed with a pet knows the feeling of waking up on the extreme edge of the bed because the cat has gone spread-eagle in his sleep or resigning themselves to sleeping in an awkward position because the dog just had to sleep with one paw on either of their knees and they couldn’t bring themselves to disturb him. Likewise Fukumaru’s insistence on being exactly in the middle of whatever Mr. Kanda is doing is easily recognizable, as is the sudden but intense need to share pictures of a pet with anyone who shows even a passing interest. Sakurai manages to push the recognizable into lightly parodic territory as well, with Mr. Kanda’s admiration of his new companion even extending to a fascination with his litterbox habits.
More remarkable than just the joys of sharing life with a pet is the way that Sakurai slowly reveals details about Mr. Kanda’s life and draws parallels between his grief and Fukumaru’s. The two have felt the same desperate loneliness – a quiet, almost forlorn kind of sadness. This isn’t thrown in our faces with maudlin intent, but rather is revealed over the course of the two volumes through small flashbacks and stories narrated by the woman who sold Mr. Kanda Fukumaru. Her chapters show how she watched Fukumaru be passed over, letting us know that the cat had a clear understanding of what was going on, and her inability to do anything about it mirrors Mr. Kanda’s best friend’s feelings as he watched Kanda grieve. Equally impressive is the measured way in which we learn about the late Mrs. Kanda and how long she and her husband knew each other, as well as what Mr. Kanda’s job is. This measured pace allows the reader to really feel they know the characters and to understand what brought them to the point they were at when the story opened, while the short chapters and mix between standard and four-panel formats keeps the plot moving nicely.
Fukumaru is the most cartoonish aspect of the art, which is perhaps intended to emphasize why potential owners didn’t find him cute enough, but it also serves to enhance the silliness of many of his actions. Otherwise the art is comparable to someone like Fumi Yoshinaga’s, with a delicate elegance, particularly for Mr. Kanda himself. Backgrounds are mostly just tone or the tatami flooring of Mr. Kanda’s home, but they are present when needed for context.
Possibly one of the more difficult elements of the series for western readers will be the fact that Fukumaru comes from a pet shop rather than a shelter. (Some U.S. states, my own included, actually ban the sale of pets in pet stores.) While there are animal shelters in Japan, they perhaps aren’t as common as they are in other parts of the world, and purebreds are a little more prevalent in terms of preferred pets, as readers may have noted whenever manga creators talk about their pets in afterwords. We may just have to write this off as a cultural difference, but if you’re a reader involved in animal rescue or aren’t used to seeing pets in little box-like cages, just be aware that this may be upsetting to you in the pet store scenes.
With that one caveat, A Man and His Cat is the kind of story that is tailor-made for pet lovers. It’s exploration of the bond between human and animal is the kind that puts a smile on your face and tears in your eyes as it shows that no matter who you are, you need someone to love.