Friday, October 6, 2023

Book Review: The Cat From The Kimono, graphic novel by Nancy Peña

Cats are an integral part of Japanese folklore. They aren't indigenous to Japan and are believed to have migrated through the Silk Route, most probably for the purpose of protecting holy Buddhist texts from rats. Soon they started to invade the streets of Japan as well as their folk tales. There are many fantastic tales of magical cats that originated in Japan. Japanese feline ghosts (yokai) like the shapeshifting bakeneko, the temple cat neko danka, and the demonic cat nekomata, the killing of which is documented officially, are only a few among them.

The Cat from the Kimono is a graphic novel by famous author Nancy Peña that works with a Japanese folk tale about a painted black cat on a silk kimono that escapes and his journey to return to the garment. The book, which was originally French, is translated into English by Montana Kane. I received an advance copy from its publisher, Humanoids, through Netgalley for honest feedback.

A Japanese weaver makes a beautiful crimson silk kimono adorned with paintings of black cats for the woman he loves. When she doesn't return his love, he tries to extract revenge, and as a result, the woman dies and one of the black cats escapes from the kimono. The book features the surreal globe-trotting journey undertaken by the black cat to return to the kimono. On the way, he meets Holmes and Watson, Alice of Wonderland fame, and several other quirky characters, like a lovelorn sailor.

The artwork in the book reminded me of Spielberg's acclaimed movie Schindler's List. Remember how the entire movie is shot in black and white, and when suddenly a red colour appears on screen, it delivers an unforgettable impact? A similar technique is used in this book too. The entire artwork is done in monochrome, and when the kimono, which is depicted in red, appears unexpectedly in the frame, it creates a deeply disturbing jolt.

The Cat from the Kimono is a surreal fantasy that takes several surprising turns and tangents along its way. It contains two distinct styles of illustrations and lettering: traditional Japanese and European. The transition between them is pretty abrupt and probably meant to disturb your flow of reading. The plot is confusing for the first time, and a second reading can be more rewarding, as you may find a lot that you missed during your first perusal. It takes hardly an hour to read it anyway.

The elements of Victorian England and literary tieups with Holmes and Alice were impressive, especially the parts that dealt with the usage of hallucinogenic substances and the ambiguity in their perception of the titular cat after that. I loved how the writer has created a maze of situations and characters that don't initially make plot sense but are expertly interconnected into cohesion by the climax. The heavy dose of dark humour lifts the story-telling to a different level.


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