From Bakeneko to Bakemonogatari: The Secret History of Catgirls

It’s a query society has requested for ages: what got here first, the cat or the woman?

The catgirl is without doubt one of the most resilient pictures in anime at present. Nevertheless, even the time period “catgirl” is just a little obscure. Shut your eyes and attempt to think about what that phrase truly means. Did you consider a lady, however with cat ears? Did she have a tail? Does she have a verbal tic? Was she — by some mystical, scientific, or by another supernatural incidence — capable of remodel into an precise cat? Should you mentioned sure or no to any of these questions, are we nonetheless speaking about the identical type of “catgirl”?

The reply is nobody actually is aware of. However that hasn’t stopped folks from making an attempt to research the origins of this immensely fashionable character sort. Does such a factor as “the primary catgirl” really even exist?

Black Hanekawa as she seems in Nekomonogatari

What We Speak About When We Speak About Catgirls

Broadly talking, characters with animal ears are described as kemonomimi, which accurately means animal ears. What about catgirl etymology? As anticipated, characters with cat ears are described as nekomimi, aka cat ears. The time period nekomusume (cat woman or daughter, actually) has additionally been used, which can be notably the title of the character Neko-Musume from Shigeru Mizuki’s fashionable 1960s supernatural manga GeGeGe no Kitarō. Ralph F. McCarthy, the primary to translate Kitarō in a bilingual version revealed by Kodansha in 2002, localized this title as “Catchick.” That is all to say, the invented euphemism “catgirl” is only one of many used to explain the identical factor: a cat-like woman who might or might not claw your eyes out with a mischievous smirk.

Mizuki’s Neko-Musume relies on the bakeneko, an evil cat spirit who is usually capable of change between human and feline kind. Folklorist Matthew Meyer describes bakeneko as starting their lives as common home cats, however later accumulating extra human-like traits as they mature. In lots of tales, they’re depicted as lapping up the blood of homicide victims, thereby granting them supernatural powers. In fact, they aren’t to be mistaken with nekomata — twin-tailed cat spirits, like Yōkai Watch’s Jibanyan. Very similar to the remainder of Mizuki’s yōkai characters impressed by Japan’s supernatural folklore, Mizuki’s bakeneko are the byproduct of inventive license. Neko-Musume doesn’t have cat ears like we would count on them at present, however technically she suits the invoice for a supernatural entity. Like modern-day big-eyed catgirls, your mileage might fluctuate.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Element from Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s nekozuka print

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a woodblock artist born in 1798, is well-known for his many cat-centric prints. One in every of his most famed initiatives was a collection of prints depicting the 1827 kabuki drama, Touring Alone to the Fifty-three Stations. In 1852, Kuniyoshi printed an outline of actor Onoe Kikugorō III as one of many play’s most memorable characters, the nekozuka, a cat monster residing in Okazaki assuming the type of a human girl. Kuniyoshi attracts this specter with two very noticeable cat ears — an announcement that it is a suspicious supernatural entity. This identical motif reoccurs in different Kuniyoshi works, noticeably a woodblock triptych depicting the identical actor as a cat creature. Once more, these infamous ears seem.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Onoe Kikugorō III illustrated by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Is Kuniyoshi’s aptitude for implausible flourish the lacking hyperlink? The key origin of all catgirls who ever dared meow within the trendy age? Properly, it’s just a little extra sophisticated than that.

Will the Actual Catgirls Please Stand Up?

The bakeneko is however only one entry in Japanese folklore’s lengthy love affair with cats. In up to date media, the idea of a cat-influenced girl is seen in lots of horror movies. In an entry on bakeneko for The Encyclopedia of Japanese Horror Movies, scholar Michael Crandol writes: “Bakeneko tales had been the only hottest topic of Japanese horror movies from the daybreak of cinema by means of the 1960s, with greater than sixty such photos launched by 1970.” With movies as early as 1938’s The Ghost Cat and The Mysterious Shamisen, to post-war trendy classics like 1968’s Kuroneko, the bakeneko sub-genre in Japanese horror is a testomony to its ubiquity. To not point out the attract of mysterious intrigue.


Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko asks the common query: will my cat eat me once I die?

From this angle, the origins of catgirls appear fairly bushy. In actual fact, wanting solely by means of the lens of the standard bakeneko narrative is extraordinarily limiting. Certainly they all aren’t evil girls possessed by vengeful spirits? So what else?

In Could 2019, impartial cartoonist Keiichi Tanaka posted a thread on Twitter asking concerning the attainable origins of the catgirl design correct:


— はぁとふる倍国土 (@keiichisennsei) Could 16, 2019

Among the many replies included Osamu Tezuka’s character Hecate, a shape-shifting younger witch who transforms right into a half-humanoid, half-cat creature from the 1950s manga Princess Knight. Others point out Kuniyoshi’s cat-eared nekozuka woodblock prints, alongside the introduction of the traditional Playboy Bunny costume in Japan. At first, it looks as if Yumiko Ōshima’s manga Star of Cottonland stands out as the level of origin, however maybe it’s not really easy to pin down. Did Tezuka, like so many inventions in early anime and manga, do it first? Are catgirls maybe an underappreciated relic of the Edō interval? What about traditional ’80s shōjo manga?

Princess Knight

Feline magic in Tezuka’s Princess Knight

Like many nice debates in artwork historical past, the conclusion is ambiguous. Some would possibly say Kuniyoshi unintentionally invented “catgirls” within the 19th century. Others might say Tezuka refined the idea, however Ōshima popularized the concept of cat ears on cute women. If we look at catgirls strictly by means of the lens of anime and manga, the anomaly and debate relating to “origins” grow to be much less of a fuzzy headache. Relatively, we are able to re-frame the query: What works probably helped catgirls bloom into the anime and manga-centric phenomenon we all know and love at present?

Star of Cottonland

Chibi Neko, a cat who believes she is a lady

Ōshima’s Star of Cottonland was serialized in shōjo journal LaLa from 1978 to 1987. The protagonist, Chibi Neko, is a kitten who views herself as just a little woman. Due to this, the story is illustrated from her perspective and depicts her as human, with the caveat of getting cat ears. In her 1995 e-book, Phänomen Manga: Comedian-Kultur in Japan, scholar Jaqueline Berndt factors to Ōshima being the attainable originator of this now massively fashionable trope. In 1984, Star of Cottonland was tailored into OVA by Mushi Manufacturing, the animation studio famously identified for adapting a lot of Tezuka’s main works.

In the meantime, one other OVA debuted in 1984: Bagi, the Monster of Mighty Nature. This was an unique manufacturing written by Tezuka himself in response to gene recombination analysis approval by the Japanese authorities. Most famously, it featured an anthropomorphic feline girl named Bagi, who’s undeniably extra cat than woman. Bagi makes an attempt to achieve vengeance on humanity whereas concurrently forging a troubled relationship with the action-hero male protagonist. Whereas the Star of Cottonland OVA noticed a restricted house launch, Bagi was broadcasted by way of the Nippon Tv Community as a TV particular.


Twin cyberpunk catgirls from Masamune’s Dominion

Star of Cottonland and Bagi couldn’t be extra thematically completely different, nonetheless, they each depend upon catgirls for his or her worldbuilding. Masamune Shirow’s 1985 science-fiction manga, Dominion, follows an analogous pattern with its portrayal of android catgirls in a gritty cyberpunk setting. Tailored right into a 1988 OVA collection, Dominion: Tank Police options two puma twins, Anna and Uni, catgirls created as sentient love dolls. With their wild hair and overtly sexualized design, they undoubtedly have extra in widespread with Tezuka’s violent Bagi than Ōshima’s preliminary cat-eared women. They’re, for lack of a greater phrase, an otaku’s trendy catgirl with their feral bloodthirst intact.

A Catgirl for All Seasons

A function from Kadokawa’s Davinci Information’ anime division titled “We Investigated ‘Why Are Nekomimi Ladies So Cute’” attracts consideration to the 2013 Fall anime season. Specifically, ear and tail-equipped characters from Outbreak Firm and Nekomonogatari. What’s the attraction of animal-eared women, the place did they arrive from, and why are they so seemingly fashionable now? Once more, Kuniyoshi’s fearsome kabuki portraits are talked about, nevertheless with an necessary caveat: Kuniyoshi’s cat ears had been meant to strike worry, not encourage allure. The identical might be mentioned for the post-war increase in bakeneko movies and their scream queen actresses. The article’s writer even means that the prominence of the Playboy Bunny outfit, with its attraction to the uppercrust of society and cute tail, would possibly’ve additionally added to a flourishing nekomimi cosplay craze. In some unspecified time in the future, the strangeness of the idea grew to become secondary to cute novelty.

Black Hanekawa, Nekomonogatari

Koyomi confronts the Sawari Neko possessing Hanekawa

This statement factors out an necessary up to date pattern: decorative catgirls, aka eyecandy, verus catgirls with a story objective. Peak catgirl is one way or the other balancing each acts. Characters like Bakemonogatari’s Tsubasa Hanekawa — a excessive schooler who’s possessed by the Sawari Neko spirit — unintentionally create the night-prowling, cat-eared alter-ego named “Black Hanekawa.” Black Hanekawa might maybe be the fashionable mash-up of bakeneko custom and otaku catgirl-ness we have lengthy awaited. She speaks in cat-puns, clearly not human, and is most significantly a fearsome supernatural nuance. However on the flip-side, Black Hanekawa is every little thing we count on from the otaku’s catgirl: ears on high of her head, an eccentric character, and a need to magnify these feline quirks at any time when attainable for cuteness’ sake.

Black Hanekawa, Bakemonogatari



The fashionable catgirl’s sensibility is to be a lady first, cat second. Whereas hints of this archetype is seen in Shirow’s 1980s catgirl love androids, early 2000s collection like Di Gi Charat and Tokyo Mew Mew have solely additional pushed this particular on a regular basis taste of catgirl agenda. Particularly contemplating the infectious prevalence of mascot characters like Dejiko, a chibified catgirl with fortunate cat bells on character items shops throughout Akihabara. It’s no marvel they’ve successfully misplaced all their unncanniness. However apart from the cultural context — there’s no actual purpose why cat ears simply can’t be cute in themselves.

GAMERS, Dejiko

Dejiko and firm selling a GAMERS character items retailer in Akihabara

These days, you don’t need to look very exhausting to discover a cat-eared character. Collection like Re:Zero famously function characters like Felix, whose cat-like qualities are a part of the lore. Nintendo collection like Hearth Emblem have even newly added a “beast” race of animal-eared characters. To not point out the large reputation of franchises like Strike Witches and Kemono Pals in recent times, catgirls undoubtedly draw massively passionate fanbases. Irrespective of the place they got here from, catgirls in all styles and sizes, clawed, and de-clawed, have by no means stopped turning heads. The nyapocalypse is right here to remain, fur-real.

Do you’ve got a favourite catgirl of all time? Allow us to knyaow within the feedback beneath!

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Blake P. is a weekly columnist for Crunchyroll Options. He thinks Cats (the musical) deserves a correct anime adaptation. His twitter is @_dispossessed. His bylines embrace FanbyteVRVUnwinnable, and extra.

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