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Cats in Japan: Popularity, spirituality, and 5 heartwarming movies to watch if you love them

A feline film a day keeps boredom away.

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It’s 2020 and the world is taken by a storm with the first-ever film adaptation of the musical “Cats,” a show that has won the hearts of millions across the globe. The movie has attracted thousands of viewers to theaters in Japan as well, but this isn’t a surprise — cats are the most preferred pet in this country (yes, Japan has more cat than dog pets), and they are the charming animals that have inspired hundreds of literary, screen, and pop culture characters. Just think of Hayao Miyazaki’s black cat Jiji from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or Natsume Soseki’s classic novel “I am a Cat” — or everyone’s favorite Hello Kitty.

But cats are not just adorable animals in Japan. Believed to have been introduced to Japan in the 8th century as means to catch mice that were damaging paddies and shrines, cats began to be perceived as “guardians” — animals that protect people’s livelihood. If you’ve ever been in Japan, chances are that you have come across the beckoning “Maneki Neko” cat at stores that welcomely brighten up your day. Believed to bring good luck, this signature figurine is so famous that it even has a temple populated by it in Tokyo, a place known as Gotokuji Temple, where hundreds of maneki neko of all sizes await your visit. There are many other shrines and temples across the country that use cats as spiritual guardians or are dedicated to all earthy felines. Among them are the Unrinji Temple (or “Cat Temple”) in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where one can pray to different feline deities for prosperity and success, or the Kokage Shrine in Tokyo where people pray for lost cats’ safe return home. On the pop-cultural side, Japan’s cat obsession has given rise to cat cafes, the ultimate stress relief venues; an unofficial “Cat Day” on February 22, a date that, thanks to a play on words, can be pronounced as “nya nya nya,” the way cats meow in Japan; and even a cat-dedicated bookstore in central Tokyo that sells only cat goods. And of course, there is also the famous “Cat Island” (Tashirojima) near Miyagi Prefecture, where the cat population far exceeds the human.

Japan’s feline frenzy has also inspired a number of movies on the topic of human-cat interactions, many of which speak of familial love and friendship that goes beyond words and gestures. Here are five of our favorite ones, which we recommend you watch as you cuddle with your feline.

1. If Cats Disappeared from the World (世界から猫が消えたなら), 2016

Based on Genki Kawamura’s novel of the same name, “If cats disappeared from the world” is a heartwarming story of a man who comes to terms with himself as he faces death. The movie follows “Boku,” our nameless protagonist who battles terminal brain cancer. One day he meets the devil (who looks exactly like him), who promises him an extra day of life if he removes something essential from the world. “Boku” begins with phones, movies, and other things until he sets his eyes on cats — but can he imagine a world without them? A tale of learning to appreciate something precious only when it’s gone, this movie will leave you tearing from start till end.

Cast: Takeru Satoh, Aoi Miyazaki, Gaku Hamada
Director: Akira Nagai

2. Cats Don’t Come When You Call (猫なんかよんでもこない。), 2015

Cats don’t come when you call but come when you don’t call, and that summarizes their cat-titude that can drive a man crazy. And that’s exactly what happens to our protagonist Mitsuo, a pro-boxer whose elder brother shows up one day with two kittens in hands, asking him for a favor: to look after them. But Mitsuo is a “dog guy” and has never liked cats, not to mention knowing how to look after them. But as their life together begins, he soon discovers a thing or two about cats that could make him change his mind. Based on a true story, this film will surmes you kindly.

Cast: Shunsuke Kazama, Mayu Matsuoka, Takeshi Tsuruno
Director: Toru Yamamoto

3. Samurai Cat (猫侍), 2014

Madarame Kyutaro is a skilled samurai who was once a fearsome swordsman but now lives a life away from the human eye in poverty and solitude. One day he receives an assassination order for the first time in a very long time, which he rejoices, thinking it could help him get back to his previous glorifying self. But he soon comes to learn that the target of his next mission is an adorable white cat with presumably black magic skills. A light but heartwarming comedy, this movie is about the hard choices we make … when we fall in love.

Cast: Kazuki Kitamura, Misako Renbutsu
Director: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi

4. Neko Taxi (ねこタクシー), 2010

Tsutomu Masegaki is an introverted taxi driver who isn’t popular neither at work nor at home. He lives for the day, shying away from all things he wants to achieve, and spends most of his time being told off by customers riding his cab. One day, however, his path crosses this of a beautiful stray cat, which he decides to adopt — in his taxi. From that point on, his life takes a drastic change, and suddenly everything starts being a tad more fun. Until one day, the local city shelter tells Masegaki that he should stop “mistreating” the cat — an order Masegaki finds hard to abide by.

Cast: Takanori “Cunning” Takeyama, Mayu Tsuruta
Director: Toru Kamei

5. The Travelling Cat Chronicles (旅猫リポート), 2018)

The adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s best-selling novel of the same name, “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” is a movie portrayed from the point of view of Nana, a black and white cat who is traveling across the country “on a mission” with his owner Satoru. This mission, however, as we come to find out, is a sad one, and the way Nana expresses his feelings makes it even more heartbreaking. At times funny, at times tear-jerking, the story of Nana and Satoru is one of the strongest bonds between men and his pets.

Cast: Sota Fukushi
Director: Koichiro Miki

Whether a cat fan or not, one thing we can’t deny is that cats are simply adorable — even at those many times when they’re stubborn, self-centered, and aw-so-needy. But there’s a reason why they’re so popular in Japan — as you’ll find out after watching the films above.

Text by Rose Haneda