Out of all Sōseki Natsume's major works, I Am A Cat has always struck me as being the cruelest and most cynical, doubly so for being in the guise of a comedy. It's ostensibly about human foibles as seen through the eyes of an outsider — in this case, the cat of the title — but its real subject is the irredeemability of human nature. It starts lightheartedly enough as a comedy of manners and errors, and then by degrees turns darker until it reaches a conclusion of such breathtaking nihilism you wonder if it was the last thing Sōseki ever wrote.
But it wasn't; it was instead the work that kicked his literary career into high gear, and set him on the course to being a full-time author. Chirou Kobato's manga adaptation, adeptly translated into English by Zack Davisson, distills the book down to its most essential beats: the cat's sardonic perspective on the humans around him, the humans and their foibles, and the darkness the descends on the story in its last stages and never lifts.
A cat's-eye view
The original work, which sprawled across some 630 pages in its English translation, is essentially a string of short stories, was extended from its first (relatively self-contained) installment by the editors of the journal Sōseki published it in, and as a result it has a rambling, digressive structure that can be a test of patience. Compressed here into 200 pages of manga, it's blunter and more focused. It was the sardonic tone and point of view of the original story that made it a hit to begin with, and a perennial thereafter.
Told in a high-handed first-person voice (even the cat's word for "I" is a pretentious archaism), it begins with the unnamed narrator entering the world as a barely weeks-old kitten separated from its litter. Their first encounters with humans fascinate and confuse in equal measure: what is this being with a face "smooth as a kettle"? After some wandering, the cat ends up more or less in the stewardship of Kushami, an English teacher who puts in the barest effort possible to earn any of his labels.
When Kuishami isn't nodding off at his desk, gulping stomach remedies (it's hard not to see this character as a self-abasing authorial insert), or trying one futile form of self-expression after another, he holds court in his household with a clutch of other high-brow good-for-nothings: his buddy Meitei, with his reservoir of pseudo-philosophical, fake-historical "insights"; Kangetsu, a former student of Kushami's now embroiled in completing a doctoral thesis as convoluted as it is worthless; the goateed Dokusen, ostensibly a Zen practitioner but really just lazy and indifferent.
Human, all too human
Two things provide the cat with unprecedented insights into this rabble. One is the mere fact that the cat's not human — they have the alienation, the remove, needed to witness all that goes on and make no justifications for it, to look through it and out the other side. It's not just that nothing we do makes sense to the cat, but that we go out of our way to invite our pain and trouble atop that.
The other is the cat's invisibility. As with something like Diary Of A Chambermaid, where the caste of the main character grants her access to the parts of peoples' lives that remain hidden to others (and sometimes even to themselves), the cat can go and come freely among this crew, never be noticed, and have them reveal themselves to him without a thought. In front of our peers or even our close friends, we always put up a wall, but who bothers to hide themselves from a tree, or the sky? Or a cat? Character is who we are in the dark, the saying goes, and Sōseki's story is an assertion that in the dark, all human beings are gray at best.
Eventually a plot of sorts comes together, in the fits-and-starts way of a story that is not really all that concerned with plot. The imperious wife of a snobby family of nouveau riche, the Kanedas, comes seeking Kangetsu as a bride for her daughter. We can see, by way of the cat, that the daughter is not worth the trouble. Her beauty and lovesick manners are more than offset by her self-indulgence and self-importance. Kushami and his friends want Kangetsu to have nothing to do with that stuck-up bunch. The Kanedas go from wheedling to outright dirty tricks, recruiting a bunch of kids to make Kushami and his gang miserable with their ill-aimed baseballs. All the while, the Kushami group's banter grows darker, until the sardonically happy ending that just leaves the cat with the feeling all they've witnessed of human nature is a veneer over a void. And that being a cat is no liberation from such things, either.
The simplest of surfaces
Behind me in the bookcase I have a whole shelf of manga adaptations of literature, Japanese and otherwise. Some are little more than Classics Illustrated; some have great verve and imagination, and leave the original behind in favor of a more radical interpretation (e.g., one of the more recent manga versions of Sōseki's own Kokoro). In truth I'm not against the idea of just illustrating a classic that people might otherwise find hard to approach; I'm just against doing it in a way that's unaesthetic, or in a way that would repel people more than it would draw them in. Some of the Manga de Dokuha ("Reading Through Manga") adaptations are like this — including, unfortunately, their edition of I Am A Cat, with art so unappetizing it's a turn-off all by itself.
Chiroru Kobato's version of I Am A Cat is less ambitious artistically than the adaptation of Kokoro I singled out in the above article, but not as a strike against it. The art is pleasing, simple, and approachable, the better to collect the book's story beats and present them undistractingly. In fact, the way the material gets darker while the artwork remains clean and sunny throughout provides its own thematic contrast: we see on the page more or less what, and as, the humans themselves see, but the cat's words put a bleak underscore to it all. Right up to and through that ending, which is as bleak as it gets.