Magic and Evil: Life of Cats at the Japan Society

My cat in the garden.[Cynthia Via]
Cat in the garden. [Cynthia Via]
Even prior to the cat-gif madness of the internet era, I was a fan. Growing up I didn’t have any, but some of my relatives and friends had cats to share, so I was lucky to discover their mysterious and rebellious nature. Last year my family received two sister himalayan-siamese cats. They were ours to keep. A friend had a feisty baby chasing them like chickens, so it was obvious she couldn’t keep them any longer. The cats bring happiness and curiosity to the house, and keep the days light. They love to play in the garden. As soon as the cold weather is gone, they wait by the door for their chance to dream of butterflies. Sometimes one of the sisters will come to my room when I’m reading a book before going to sleep. She’ll nudge her head at my arm, and look up with bulbous eyes, or when I’m getting ready in the morning she’ll follow me as I make wardrobe adjustments. I think she knows when I’m feeling sad or when I’m being evil. She’s the all-knowing cat with telepathic powers, and I’m just a human. Sometimes I write poems about my cats.

Documenting the interaction between cats and people through art is an old tradition. The ancient Egyptians come to mind with their stoic black cat statues; they considered cats sacred and even worshiped a lioness warrior, deity by the name of Bastet. Needless to say our attachment is not going anywhere. We continue to worship them, now through cat videos, memes, cat books, and cat cafes. And no wonder, since they’re lovely, good companions for the road.

The Third Princess and Her Cat [Isoda Koryūsai 1770]
The Third Princess and Her Cat [Isoda Koryūsai 1770]
Japanese culture is rich in folklore tales and symbolism about cats.  There’s the popular Maneki Neko, meanings the”good luck” cat, often seen in Japanese restaurant. Japan also has a small cat shrine (neko jinja) in the middle of  Tashirojima Island. Not too long ago, I visited the Life of Cats from Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection (1615-1868) at the Japan Society to learn how cats have centuries of experience dealing with humans. When going inside the space, it reminded me of an ancient wooden house in Japan. The security guard opened the sliding doors, and I entered the universe called the Edo Period, as seen through ukiyo-e woodblock prints mixed in with tapestry and calligraphy. They had different sections: cats and people in their daily habits, cats as warriors—or cats as regular folks with robes, sitting elegantly in wooden houses but with cat faces! Also cats playing games, fishing, and being drunk. In cat versus people, cats are transformed into witchy cats haunting the night and mind-controlling humans. The prints stem from Edo folk stories about naughty cats, magnified into dramatic portrayals of magic and evil. Those witchy cats are called nekomata, meaning a cat with split-end-tails. Oddly enough it means cat kills in Spanish. If you weren’t completely enamored with cats before, seeing these Edo Period ukiyo-e woodblock prints will make you want to own more cats than you can fit in your tiny, cave apartment. Cats add ounces of human comedy and lightness of spirit to our otherwise mundane, robotic lives. They mock us in our attempt to be serious or uptight. They say: be silly and play, but always with a sense of mystery. The Life of Cats at the Japan Society is still on view until this Sunday, June 7. Don’t be a lazy cat and miss the whole thing for a soft couch or a tasty fish in the sun!

Onoe Kikugorõ III as the Cat Witch of Okabe Representing Okozaki on the Tõkaidõ Road [1840]
 2015-05-01 19.10.38

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