And so we come to Nekopara vol. 1, the first of this series of popular eroge, and the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon.
Except that’s not quite accurate; while Nekopara vol. 1 was indeed the first place that many fans came across this series — particularly in the West — it’s far from the beginning of the story as a whole.
To see the origins of Nekopara and everyone’s favourite catgirls, we need to look back much further to some non-game works by series artist Sayori, and how those designs evolved into the colourful, cutesy funtime we know as Nekopara today.
Sayori, for those unfamiliar, is a Chinese artist living in Japan, and founder of the doujin circle Nekoworks, creators of Nekopara. Sayori is a prolific artist, but from looking back over the archives of her work, it’s very clear that she’s always had something of a soft spot for her catgirl creations. (And Touhou girls, but if we get into that we’ll be here all day, so let’s concentrate on the cats.)
One of the earliest sightings of the characters we now know as Chocola and Vanilla, lead heroines of Nekopara vol. 1, was a 2010 calendar called Neko Bible. In Neko Bible, the two catgirls were presented in a variety of different situations and outfits, with a strong emphasis on Gothic lolita and Victorian-inspired fashions: lots of frills, lacy bits, crinkly skirts, roses and the colour black.
image via Danbooru
Both Chocola and Vanilla are already recognisable in this 2010 picture. Vanilla in particular has changed very little over the years; while her modern incarnation has rather less deep black clothing in evidence than this distinctly Gothic interpretation, she maintains her ornately frilled, maid-like clothing and even the same colour scheme seen later in Neko Bible.
Chocola has been through some more noticeable changes over the years. Most notably, her hair colour has been softened from the deep black seen in her early incarnations into an appropriately chocolate-brown tint. Her expressions, too, are noticeably softer and more child-like in her modern incarnation, whereas in Neko Bible she was very much embracing the “mysterious Gothic lolita” trope for the most part.
The core concept of Nekopara — cute catgirls help run a cafe, also there is sex — was first seen in Sayori’s book Neko Paradise, a book from a similar time to the Neko Bible calendar that mostly featured full-colour images of Chocola and Vanilla, but which also introduced a blonde, young-looking catgirl called Caramell [sic] as well as featuring a sexually explicit comic. It’s this latter part that led to today’s Nekopara.
image via Danbooru
Vanilla and Chocola’s Gothic-style fashion is still present and correct in this incarnation of Nekopara, though the contrast in their personalities is much more readily apparent. Chocola’s facial expression reflects her eager, lively and optimistic personality, while Vanilla’s seemingly expressionless face belies her dry wit and scathing observations of life around her.
Of course, there’s not much time to explore that characterisation in the original Neko Paradise, as by the third page of the comic the duo are getting down to some serious yuri business — originally, Chocola and Vanilla were not presented as the inseparable twin sisters they are in the games. The justification for the sex scene is the same as in the game, however; Chocola is in heat and needs relief. In the comic, it is Vanilla, who is visiting to help out in the cafe, who takes the brunt of Chocola’s affections — though her anonymous (and faceless) “Master” does show up towards the end — whereas in the game, Chocola goes straight for protagonist Kashou, with Vanilla “helping”. (The situation is reversed later in the game.)
image via Danbooru
A sequel to Neko Paradise was released a couple of years later, again featuring a selection of full-colour artwork and a sexually explicit comic involving Chocola and Vanilla. This time around, Sayori took the time to explain a little more about the two catgirls, depicting them both as being from Kansai, as being twin sisters, and as being rivals for the still-anonymous “Master’s” affections.
This incarnation of Chocola and Vanilla formed the basis for the characters we first meet in Nekopara vol. 1. In particular, Chocola’s inability to express her true feelings for her Master carries across fully intact, as does her strong desire to always be together with both Vanilla and her Master, even if that means they have to share out their affections. Vanilla, meanwhile, is described as being anxious about the idea of yearning for a male companion, and the curious threesome in which she finds herself with her sister and her Master is presented as being her ideal solution to the problem. She gets to remain with her sister and enjoy male companionship without anyone ending up feeling jealous.
Nekopara vol. 1 provided an opportunity to Sayori to explore these characters further than ever before. Unconstrained by physical limitations such as page counts, Sayori and Nekoworks were free to fully flesh out the backstories of these two already visually appealing characters, as well as start them down the road of a continuously developing narrative that, at the time of writing, has no end in sight.
Thankfully, for those of us who were never lucky enough to get hold of Sayori’s original artwork, calendars and books, Nekopara vol. 1 doesn’t assume any knowledge of Chocola and Vanilla, instead introducing the pair of them from the perspective of Kashou, the previously anonymous “Master” referenced in the comics, and the owner of the cafe in which they were shown to be working.
Chocola and Vanilla are introduced as a pair of catgirls who technically “belonged” to Kashou’s sister Shigure, but who stowed away in Kashou’s boxes as he moved away from home. Kashou was attempting to escape a deteriorating relationship with his parents and hoping to start a new life as a bakery owner, but he had not counted on how much he had come to mean to the two catgirls.
In the world of Nekopara, catgirls are explained as being “genetically modified humanoid cats”. Despite having the ability to communicate and interact with the world like humans, their animal instincts are very much still in evidence, and their rapid growth mirrors that of their feline counterparts; indeed, Chocola and Vanilla are presented as being no more than a year old at the start of the story, despite having the physical (and, to an extent, emotional) maturity of a young adult.
Despite their inherent “humanity”, catgirls are “owned” by people in the world of Nekopara. They’re technically pets, though most are depicted as growing to be part of the families they join, with some owners coming to regard their catgirls as children, others taking them as lovers — or “catpanions” as the English translation rather charmingly puts it.
An important part of Nekopara’s overall narrative is Chocola and Vanilla’s desire to overcome their natural instincts and become true companions to Kashou. Deep down, they know that they’ll never quite be able to stand alongside him as complete equals, as although they demonstrate a certain amount of emotional intelligence over the course of the narrative — and Vanilla in particular is appealingly pragmatic about many of the situations in which she finds herself — they lack a certain degree of street smarts and common sense, particularly when put under stress.
However, the situation isn’t completely hopeless for the pair of them, and the world of Nekopara is set up to cater to those catgirls who aspire to be something more than loving pets to their families. Specifically, as Kashou’s sister explains, the “Bell” program allows catgirls to demonstrate that they can be responsible and independent by proving that “a single catgirl can fit into human society”.
Shigure and Kashou’s other family cats, introduced briefly in vol. 1 and explored further in subsequent Nekopara installments, are depicted as having already successfully undertaken the Bell examination, so it falls to them to help educate Chocola and Vanilla in the ways of the world. In a delightfully memorable scene, however, each and every one of them demonstrates that it’s impossible for any of them to completely leave behind their feline instincts — teaching Vanilla and Chocola the important lesson in the process that no-one is completely infallible, and if you constantly strive for perfection you’ll probably just end up frustrating yourself and denying your true nature.
The cat-like aspects of Chocola, Vanilla and the other catgirls represent some of the most keenly observational — and hilarious — writing in all of Nekopara. Sayori and the team at Nekoworks clearly know cats: how they behave, how they interact with humans, how they make themselves part of the family. Whether it’s Vanilla deciding she wants to sit somewhere and threatening to “use force” if Chocola and Kashou won’t move out of the way to make space for her, or the mature-looking (but actually very young) Coconut getting distracted by a fly while attempting to help Chocola and Vanilla out with their Bell studies, the cast never quite lets us forget that, despite the moe exterior, they’re still cats.
Which, of course, puts us in an interesting position when it comes to the sex scenes of the 18+ version.
Much like in the original comics, Chocola and Vanilla are depicted as being in heat. Chocola initially misinterprets the physical signals of her situation and Kashou, despite having made the effort to read up on catgirl ownership in an attempt to be a better Master, skipped over that part on the assumption that it probably wouldn’t happen. Vanilla, meanwhile, pragmatic as ever, recognises the signs immediately, and it’s she who practically forces Kashou and Chocola together into physical intimacy, contributing a little of her own input along the way to demonstrate her deep, pure affection for her twin.
The sex scene between Chocola and Kashou is initially presented almost as Kashou doing Chocola a “favour”; relieving the stress in her mind and body brought about through her natural instincts and physical condition. As the scene unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the pair of them have genuinely come to care about one another, and far from being a functional, therapeutic exercise, it ends up causing their relationship to reach a new level.
Taken literally, the sex scene between Kashou and Chocola — and indeed the later ones between Kashou and Vanilla, then Kashou and the both of them — can be interpreted as the catgirls embracing their human sides by enjoying the most intimate way it is possible for two human beings to be together with one another.
It can also be read in a somewhat more abstract manner, however, as a means of representing the fact that real cats and their human owners often bond through physical contact and interactions. Not sexual contact, obviously — at least I’d sure as hell hope not — but most cats are definitely very tactile, physical creatures who enjoy being petted, stroked, tickled and cuddled.
Most domestic cats are spayed or neutered before they join a family, so generally them “being in heat” as Chocola and Vanilla are isn’t an issue, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy physical closeness and contact. Indeed, as I type these very words, my cat Ruby is sitting next to me on the sofa, positioned in such a way that the entire left side of her body is pressed up against my right leg. She enjoys expressing her physical affection in that way. The erotic scenes in Nekopara can be considered in the same way, as a means of the “cats” wanting to get close to their “owner”: since Chocola and Vanilla are mostly human, however, they can express that physical affection in more extreme, intimate manners.
Crucially, Nekopara vol. 1 remains completely non-judgemental about the situation in which Kashou eventually finds himself, enjoying a physical relationship with two beautiful catgirls who already wished to stay by his side even before their relationship took that next step. People entering into relationships with their catgirls is presented as perfectly normal in the world of Nekopara, and indeed Kashou, though embarrassed at first, soon comes to consider himself proud and lucky to have such two devoted companions perpetually by his side.
It’s the final scene in Nekopara that humanises Chocola and Vanilla the most, however. Deeply concerned by Kashou’s illness brought about by overwork and fatigue, they set out to try and find him some medical attention, but in their panic they forget to bring their Bells with them and find themselves at the mercy of the police.
The scene serves a few purposes: firstly, it mirrors Chocola and Vanilla’s backstory of them originally being picked up as strays from the streets — though in this case they’re just incorrectly perceived as strays thanks to their absent-mindedness — and secondly, it shows that Chocola and Vanilla, up until now pretty much presented as “the perfect girlfriends”, are every bit as fallible as their older peers.
Most importantly, the scene serves to demonstrate the fact that, however independent these girls would like to think they have become, they will always have a certain degree of dependence on Kashou — though at the same time, Kashou has, by this point, come to depend on them, too, making the relationship a lot more “equal” between the three of them than any of them realise.
“After that incident, I learned that there’s no way to keep Nii-sama from attempting to achieve the impossible,” notes Shigure in vol. 1’s ending, having brought all the other catgirls with her to help out the overworked trio. It’s a touching moment of bonding between them all, and the beginning of Kashou coming to understand how important family is to leading a happy and fulfilling life, even if most of those “family” members aren’t related by blood.
Thanks to Eve at Denpasoft for the review copies of the Nekopara series.
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