Bakeneko (Supernatural Cats)

Bruce Rutledge

Bruce is the editor-in-chief based in Seatle

Cats like you’ve never seen before

A new book by Zack Davisson, Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan, explores the history of magical cats in Japan. The book, co-published by Mercuria Press of Portland and Chin Music Press of Seattle, is lushly illustrated in full color with dozens of ukiyo-e and drawings.

Inside, you’ll meet the Bakeneko, a fluid shapeshifter; the Nekomata, or split-tailed cat; Kasha, the corpse-eating demon; the Bakeneko prostitutes; the Cat Daughter; the Cat Witch; the Trivet Cat; the Maneki Neko; and the Iriomote Great Mountain Cat, which has a mythology akin to Bigfoot. There’s also a chapter on supernatural cats in modern Japan that focuses on Shigeru Mizuki’s work.

Davisson couples the deep folklore knowledge of an academic with an approachable, witty writing style that draws readers in. Here’s a sample about the origin of the Bakeneko:

“In the era when cats became widespread in Japan, most people lived on a diet of vegetables and grains. There was very little supplementary meat or protein. Cats were fed whatever leftovers were available, and this rarely included meat. However, cats are carnivores. They don’t do well on vegetarian diets. When hungry, they take their protein where they can get it and aren’t too fussy about the source. During the Edo period, it was believed that cats ate butterflies. Many pictures at the time show cats fancifully hunting butterflies … But in truth, cats had a readier supply of protein.

“Edo-period houses were lit by oil lamps, and fish oil was one of the most common fuels. To a protein-starved cats, this was a feast. Cats would stand on their hind legs to reach up to the lamp to lick out the fish oil … Frightened pet owners looking at the lamplight-cast shadows would see their tiny cat suddenly elongate and stand on two legs as if transforming into a human as they reached for the lamp oil.”

Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan ($18.95) is available wherever fine books are sold.

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