Monday, May 29, 2017

Stray Cat Samurai ~ Nekogahara Volume #1 Review

From the creator of the popular manga, Shaman King, comes a strange throwback unlike anything he has ever done before. Hiroyuki Takei has created series with Stan Lee, and he has had hits of his own, but this series is something of a hidden gem. It's a bit odd that this title has so far flown under the radar.

The story stars a stray cat (this world's version of a ronin) named Norachiyo, a violent, sadistic, greedy, lout, who wanders from town to town looking out for his own skin and advancing his own cause. He is confronted by "kept cats" (this world's version of nobles) who are taken care of by people. Norachiyo considers kept cats suckers and weak and isn't above cutting them down to get what he wants. Despite all that, he is merely looking for a place to die for some unexplained reason that is at odds with how he acts and behaves.

This is not a samurai story like Rurouni Kenshin, or even Lone Wolf & Cub. Norachiyo is not a good guy/cat, he's not even an anti-hero. However, he is quite an entertaining character to follow. The reason this works is because Takei writes the characters around Norachiyo as innocent, evil, or noble, and contrasts them with his philosophy and the bad cat he is. But there are also hints at more. For such a greedy and selfish stray, the stray cat samurai didn't appear out of then air. There are even hints that his philosophy might merely be a smoke screen.

You see, Norachiyo is the name of a child. It is a custom for children when they come of age to receive an adult name and enter society. He never received his name. Norachiyo is an "old cat", but he's a spoiled child at the same time. There's a contrast with a younger teenage kitten who is immature, but comes to a lot saner conclusions than our main character does even when misguided. This leads to some good humorous moments, but also opens questions as to what exactly happened to Norachiyo to make his a stray. He was once a kept cat, but he doesn't act it. He still keeps his bell, a sign that he was owned by a person, but as much as he hates humans and their pets, he can't seem to abandon his memento of his old life.

In this volume, Norachiyo encounters many characters, some noble, some less so, but he always ends up in the thick of problems both outside of his control and those he directly causes. There's a lot of action, a lot of blood, but no real gore: you won't see organs, limbs, or heads rolling around. The most that is shone are enemies cut in two through shadow or clever use of clothes covering the wound. Takei is very clever about his use of violence.

Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai is a trashy action comic with hints at a bigger story in the background. Whether Norachiyo learns exactly how far off the beaten path he is remains unseen, but for a first volume this works exceedingly well to start from. It's easily Takei's best work since Shaman King and quite a breath of fresh air in a stale manga market.

The use of animal designs with the world of samurai really gives the art style its own look and feel. Takei's art is incredible in detail and intensity which allows it a groove of something like a lost series from the 1980s, with 1990s anthropomorphic animal designs. From an artist like Takei, this was a surprise, and a bit out of his wheelhouse. He had always done actions series, but not one in the spirit of older pulp-style manga like this.

What makes the series work is that it feels exactly like those old trashy manga magazines you would find in the '80s and early '90s hidden in bargain bins. It's violent and stylized, but there are hints there might be more to what we are seeing in the world of Nekogahara.

If you're a fan of manga from before "Japanimation" hit it big, this is a series worth looking into. They don't make them like this anymore.



  1. I immediately thought of TMNT and Usagi Yojimbo when I saw the cover and wondered if it was an 80s American comic. I wonder if those could have been an influence.

    1. It is very possible. Takei appears to know his American comic books really well. Not to mention he made "Ultimo" with Stan Lee himself. I wouldn't be surprised to learn if they were an influence.