Nekopara (or “Cat’s Paradise”, if you prefer) is a series of catgirl-centric visual novels that has become a genuine worldwide phenomenon since its launch in 2014.
Since the release of first game Nekopara vol. 1, developer Nekoworks has brought out roughly one new installment a year, beginning with the short fandisc prequel Nekopara vol. 0 in 2015 before continuing with vol. 2 and vol. 3 in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Unusually for a visual novel, the whole Nekopara series has seen simultaneous worldwide releases since its inception rather than releasing in its native territories first then localising later. This has helped fans across the world enjoy its lightweight slice-of-life comedy together, and has almost certainly been a huge contributing factor in making it so popular in both the East and West.
We’re going to start our look at the series with a broad exploration of where the catgirl phenomenon as a whole came from, and how Nekopara fits in with all that.
The image of the catgirl is said to have originated in the early 20th century, with its creation attributed to Shōwa era children’s author Kenji Miyazawa and his 1924 work Suisenzuki no yokka, in which a cat-eared girl played a prominent role.
Miyazawa’s work is actually rather interesting to consider in light of some of the themes Nekopara explores, particularly that of innocence. Writing in 1986, scholar Takao Hagiwara explained that Miyazawa’s works typically explored the concept of innocence in several ways, particularly through dichotomies such as the natural world versus the urban environment, art versus reality and even life versus death.
“Kenji was an artist who was ‘obsessed’ with the ‘different space’ or the other world, and who constantly pursued it,” writes Hagiwara. “Kenji sought this different world because, like many other artists, he was not quite satisfied with the world he was born into. For Kenji, the different space was in many ways better, truer, more beautiful, and more perfect — it was the realm of primal innocence from which, as various myths from all over the world tell us, man has been expelled since time began.”
The idea of this “different space” where things are simpler, better, calmer and more peaceful is a common one in literature — and indeed in culture at large. Who hasn’t looked at a happily playing child (or even animal) and wished, even momentarily, that they could live in their world for a little while? It’s a common, relatable fantasy — and one which we can tie back into Nekopara in numerous ways.
Firstly and most obviously is the fact that Nekopara as a work is pure, escapist fantasy, based as it is on a completely fictional premise: the idea that genetic modification has allowed for the creation of “catgirls”, who mature and grow at the speed of cats and retain many of their feline counterparts’ instinctive behaviours, and that humanity is absolutely fine with considering these distinctly human-like people as “pets” and considering themselves their “owners”.
It would be easy to get hung up on this point as a heavy-handed allegory for sociopolitical concepts such as slavery and societal inequalities, but from the very outset Nekopara’s tone makes it abundantly clear that it has no intention whatsoever of encouraging its readers to consider it in such a way. This is just how it is, the work seems to say. It’s pure fantasy, pure escapism, and you don’t need to read anything deeper into it to have a good time.
Nekopara, in other words, could be argued to be occupying that “different space” outside of reality: a space filled with innocence rather than the trials and tribulations of modern life. Of course, there’s nothing to stop a critic from attempting to read more deeply into the way humans and catgirls interact throughout the story — indeed, with how socially conscious we’re encouraged to be these days, it’s difficult not to, in some ways — but it’s extremely apparent what the authorial intention is: a simple, lightweight, amusing and heartwarming story about catgirls, and nothing more.
Many of Nekopara’s characters occupy this “different space” in their own right, too. In particular, the female leads of vol. 1, Chocola and Vanilla, have willingly immersed themselves in innocence; having grown up as strays knowing hardship before being rescued by the protagonist Kashou and his family, they now enjoy their lives to the fullest while knowing that they will always be protected by their “Master”. Indeed, Kashou refers to them several times throughout the narrative as being “like his daughters”, and he takes the raising of them very seriously; like any concerned parent of young children, he is keen to shield them from the harsh realities of the world and allow them to maintain their youthful innocence for as long as possible. (This is not, of course, taking the sexual content of the games into account, but that’s something to discuss when we come to talking about the individual titles in more detail.)
Returning to the history lesson, the first appearance of catgirls in modern popular media is credited to Mitsuyu Seo and his 1949 anime Osama no Shippo, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes which struggled to find a distributor at the time of its original production due to being considered “too leftist”. The trope didn’t gain hugely in popularity until the late ’70s and the production of the manga The Star of Cottonland, however, in which the main character was an abandoned kitten named Chibi-neko, represented as a young girl with cat ears and a tail to reflect her own belief in the possibility that cats could become human.
The idea that cats “want to be human” is a common one among those who keep real cats as pets, with many attributing distinctly human characteristics to what are, in most cases, simple animal instincts. It remains an enduring perception, however; certainly in my own household, our two cats are treated pretty much as full members of the family, and I’m sure we all know at least one person who talks to their pets as if they were people. (If you don’t, well, hi. Now you do!) We also see a similar idea to The Star of Cottonland’s core concept even in up-to-date popular media: in Atlus’ Persona 5, for example, the character Morgana is depicted as a cat that only the main cast can hear speaking; everyone else simply hears meows — this idea echoes how Chibi-neko believed she could speak the human language, but no-one seemed to understand her.
In many ways, Nekopara comes at this idea from the opposite angle: by literally making cats into “humans” and making them behave in ways that are distinctly cat-like, we can contrast with our real-world projection of human characteristics and behaviours onto domesticated animals. The writers behind Nekopara clearly know cats; throughout the narrative, we see each and every member of the cast behaving in a distinctly “believable” manner, even given the inherently fantastic and unbelievable premise. For example, partway through vol. 1, we see the young catgirl Coconut express great pride in her ability to remain calm and focused even with distractions going on around her, and she seems to live up to her self-professed reputation right up until a fly enters the room and completely monopolises her attention. And this is far from the only example of the cast demonstrating authentically cat-like behaviours.
Today, catgirls — and kemonomimi (animal-eared) characters in general — are part of a more broad trend towards moe anthropomorphism and personification. We, after all, live in a world where many popular manga, games and anime personify everything from historical figures to real-life warships via household appliances as attractive (and usually female) characters.
The popularity of animal girls shows no sign of slowing down, however; At the time of writing, one of the most popular recent anime was the surprise hit Kemono Friends, which took the idea of kemonomimi and ran with it, featuring attractive young girls representing not just the more commonly seen cats, rabbits and foxes, but also unexpected animals (i.e. those not typically associated with “attractiveness” or, perhaps more accurately, agility, grace and visual appeal) such as the hippopotamus, beaver, shoebill and many others besides.
In recent years, we’ve also seen shows such as Monster Musume, which featured more explicitly animalistic, “monstrous” characters such as the snake-tailed Miia and the spider-woman Rachnera, as well as the rather more subtle Interviews with Monster Girls (aka Demi-chan wa Kataritai), both of which explored the difficulty non-human characters had adjusting to a world that wasn’t quite designed for them. The theme of an “outsider” learning to adjust to their surroundings is a common one in Japanese popular media, even outside the realms of moe anthropomorphism, but it also happens to fit in rather nicely with the concept of characters who are “sort of human, but not quite”.
Such is the case with Nekopara. As we’ll explore further when we look at the individual games in detail, while the main cast may appear to have superficially human characteristics and even feel like they successfully fit in with human society to varying degrees, they all have their own challenges to overcome and their own work to do before they can be truly independent.
But make no mistake; far from being harrowing stories of an oppressed minority’s struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds and personal tragedies, the Nekopara games simply take us by the hand and encourage us to take a short holiday in Miyazawa’s “different space” to enjoy ourselves and have a good time; a world of innocence, colour, fun, cakes… and, of course, catgirls.
And I think we all need that sort of thing from time to time.
Thanks to Eve at Denpasoft for the review copies of the Nekopara series.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or become a Patron. You can also buy me a coffee if you want to show some one-time support. Thank you!