The first three volumes of the Nekopara series each focused on a pair of the catgirls from the core cast, and explored a key message or lesson they had to learn.
In Nekopara Vol. 1, Chocola and Vanilla learn how to function independently in human society, earning their “Bells” in the process. In Vol. 2, Coconut and Azuki both come at the idea of honesty always being the best policy from slightly different angles. And in Vol. 3, Maple and Cinnamon determine that staying true to yourself is a much better way to live your life than deliberately holding yourself back, or trying to be something that you’re not.
In Vol. 4, things are a little different. This time around, the core narrative focuses on the series protagonist Kashou, who longstanding followers of the series will know has had a certain amount of conflict brewing in his heart since the very beginning. It’s time for him to finally figure out some answers.
The fact that Kashou is troubled is apparent right from the outset; if you’re playing the 18+ version (which rather considerately asks if anyone is nearby before launching into an H-scene this time around, offering a clean alternative if so) then we see that our hero seems oddly distracted, even as the two original Nekopara heroines are tending to him. When you first see this scene, it simply looks like an opportunity for a rather sassy Vanilla to promise a sexual experience so intense that it won’t allow him to think about anything else — but when taking the context of the rest of the narrative into account, it’s very obvious that while Kashou is definitely enjoying himself, he certainly has things on his mind.
It probably doesn’t help that Kashou’s patisserie La Soleil has been getting more and more busy thanks to its steady growth in popularity over the course of the series as a whole. This is thanks in part to the social media efforts of Kashou’s sister Shigure, but it can also be attributed to the potent combination of Kashou’s excellent baking and his adorable catgirl staff, so in some senses they’re victims of their own success. As we join the action on the shop floor, it’s clear that everyone is feeling a bit frazzled with the pressure — and Kashou wandering around with his head in a fog isn’t helping matters.
The other catgirls have noticed that Kashou isn’t quite himself, either; while in previous installments it’s been made clear that all the heroines are perfectly happy in the polygamous “catpanion” relationship with Kashou — and it’s strongly implied that he spends personal time with each of them on a regular basis — this time around several of the cast note that he seems to have been spending the majority of his time with Chocola and Vanilla.
This is at least partially understandable, since Chocola and Vanilla are the only ones who actually live with Kashou, but we can deduce something else from this — that Kashou is so preoccupied with whatever is on his mind that it tends to be Chocola and Vanilla who are initiating any sort of affectionate, romantic or sexual encounter. They have the opportunity to do this when the others do not by virtue of them living under the same roof; consequently, the others find themselves feeling a little frustrated.
Further pressure is added onto everyone’s plate when Shigure shows up and requests that Kashou make a birthday cake for their mother’s upcoming celebrations. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be an issue for a veteran pâtissier, of course, but in Kashou’s case there’s an important consideration: his strained relationship with his father, which is something that has been running in the background right from the very beginning of the series. And, indeed, this is a significant part of the reason Kashou has been feeling so dissatisfied and stressed — though this doesn’t necessarily become apparent until a little later in the narrative.
Kashou comes from a family with a long tradition in producing Japanese sweets, and was set to take up the family mantle in his father’s stead. Dissatisfied with the idea of his life being laid out in stone before he’d had any sort of opportunity to define himself, Kashou rebelled against family tradition, developing a love for the creation of Western-style sweets instead. We learn in this volume that he felt so strongly about this that he actually fled abroad for some time in order to study under a French pâtissière, and that for many years now he’s been pursuing what he considers to be his “ideal flavour” — a perfect recreation of his mentor’s signature flavours.
“Dad was planning on making me run the family business,” explains Kashou. “Or so I thought. I’m not too sure about that now. Still, he drilled a lot of lessons into me; he would tell me to learn the flavour of each thing he had me taste. Dad was also the one who taught me the basics of culinary arts. It was a tough process, and I did harbour some resentment over it all, but nowadays, I’m grateful that all of that ended up being useful.
“But I was opposed to me running the family business as if it were already set in stone,” he continues. “I thought ‘is this how it’s going to be?’ It was like I didn’t really understand my own feelings. Not like I did it for soul-searching, but in order to broaden my outlook, I studied abroad in France. I felt I needed some time on my own, away from the family.”
Ever since that time, Kashou has been attempting to achieve two things: to honour his mentor’s work in France, and to gain his father’s approval. He recognises that he still has work to do on the former — though adopting the deliberately grammatically incorrect “La Soleil” moniker for his store was one way he felt he was able to at least make a start on that — but the latter aspect is where he’s found himself struggling consistently. And there are numerous reasons for this.
“If I can make really delicious Western-style cakes one day,” Kashou muses to himself, “then maybe even Dad will finally give me his approval. That has been my thought process, at least.” The trouble is that Kashou already makes delicious Western-style cakes — even if he doesn’t think that they quite match up to his mentor’s creations — and is frequently told so by both his catpanions and his customers. So where can he go from here if that ends up not being enough for his father?
With all this in mind, it’s understandable that Kashou feels rather anxious about the impending birthday party for his mother. Will his cake be good enough to gain his father’s approval? Will his father even be there for the celebrations, or is the rift between them too wide to bridge at this point? Kashou stresses about the situation so much that he muses he is no longer able to think of the house where he grew up as his home; rather, to him, it is a “battlefield”.
Things start well. Kashou and Shigure’s mother is delighted to have the whole family — including all of the catgirls — back under one roof for the first time in a very long while, and compliments Kashou’s cake. Kashou realises that while he is, at this point, accustomed to getting compliments from customers and the catgirls, a compliment from his mother is still something special that makes him blush. And only partly because of her insistence on bringing up embarrassing stories about Kashou in his youth.
But then Kashou’s father arrives. He had previously been out at a neighbourhood association meeting — something which Shigure knew full well when setting up the arrangements for the birthday party — but returns earlier than expected. He brands Kashou “pathetic” and a “coward” for sneaking into the house while he was absent — though Shigure is quick to clear things up on that front — and, more significantly, refuses to even try Kashou’s cake.
“Your cooking has no core,” he says. “Be it Western confectionaries or Japanese, neither has it. I trained you here for several years, but even after graduating college, going to France and even leaving the house, you haven’t changed a single bit.” As if to prove his point, he disappears into the kitchen and produces nothing more than a bowl of whipped cream — which Kashou is rather surprised to discover is the perfect embodiment of what he considers to be the “ideal taste” he has been pursuing for all these years.
Unable to quite process this, Kashou flees once again, in such haste that he forgets to take any of his personal belongings with him. It is ultimately Chocola and Vanilla who track him down — after all, without his bag and his house keys, none of them would be able to get back into La Soleil.
“You say you’re not good enough, you’re not experienced enough,” says Vanilla after Kashou bares his soul in the cold night air. “That is the same as us when we first started off. Even if you don’t find yourself good enough now, you just have to try. The one who taught us that was you, Master.” This is, of course, a callback to the very first Nekopara, in which Vanilla and Chocola had a lot to learn about life outside the safe family home in which they had been raised. On that occasion, Kashou was there to support and encourage them, even when they ran into difficulties; this time around, it’s their turn to encourage him.
Painfully aware that her plan backfired, Shigure subsequently arranges for Kashou and the catgirls to spend a short vacation at a famous hot springs inn. Kashou, having drawn some strength from Vanilla and Chocola’s words on the fateful evening of his mother’s birthday, feels a certain amount of guilt at what he sees as stepping away from his personal journey right when he was getting his motivation back.
But both his sister and his catpanions are quick to set him straight; while he might have an idea on what to do next, the mental turmoil he’s been putting himself through most certainly calls for a bit of much-needed rest and relaxation — especially with the Christmas rush just around the corner.
As is tradition for episodes like this in Japanese popular media, all the cast members get their own little scenes with their own messages — and, interestingly, these scenes tend to feature pairs of characters that aren’t normally seen together. Azuki spends some time playing classic videogames with a rather excitable Cinnamon, for example, while Kashou catches Coconut and Chocola feasting on illicit manju buns after several warnings that they should make sure they left room for dinner.
While the “cat” side of things in Nekopara has kind of faded a little into the background over the course of the series as a whole, scenes like the latter in particular remind us that writer and artist Sayori is still very much aware of how cats tend to behave when left to their own devices. As anyone who has ever owned a cat or two will know full well, even if the little buggers know they always get fed at the same time every day, they will never turn down the opportunity to eat something delicious — particularly if said delicious thing isn’t something they get to eat all that often.
Probably the most notable scene is between Maple and Vanilla, however, who have, it seems, developed something of a rivalry over their respective prowess on the ping-pong table. Knowing how fiercely competitive the pair of them get, the other catgirls had understandably left them to their battle, and neither of them blame the others for it.
“If it’s not your forte, then it’s not your forte,” says Maple. “Like, take Cinnamon. Give her a paddle and she’ll whiff immediately.” While Maple is talking about the current, immediate situation, it’s also something Kashou should probably think about. While he most certainly has his own strengths — and regardless of what his father says, baking Western confectionery is definitely one of them — it may simply be that doing what his father expects is not, for whatever reason, his “forte”. But that, of course, remains to be seen.
There’s another case where this might be relevant, too. Upon arrival at the hot springs area, several of the catgirls pick up a convenience store cheesecake and find themselves enjoying it a great deal. While they all agree that it is fairly unremarkable when compared to something that Kashou would create, it’s also hard to deny the fact that it is enjoyable and satisfying in its own way.
“I’ve been making Western sweets to bring smiles to everyone’s faces,” Kashou explains to a concerned Azuki, “but I’m starting to think that the closest things to that goal are those [convenience store] sweets. I’m trying to bring smiles to even more people’s faces… so my worry is: if that’s the case, then what’s the point in me baking Western sweets?” In other words, can Kashou achieve his stated goal with the specialism he has spent so many years acquiring at this point? Is his struggle to achieve something that satisfies him down to him not having found the correct “forte” in his life?
“I was sitting here thinking what could be eating at you, but… this is a pretty ‘you’ concern, Kashou, if I say so myself,” responds Azuki — who, let’s not forget, despite being the smallest of all the catgirls due to her being based on the Munchkin breed, is actually the oldest (and, theoretically, wisest) of all of them. “Preferences for flavours come in all shapes and sizes. Even so, most people think that your cakes taste better than convenience store sweets, right?
“If you want to just make people smile, then you should be in stand-up, not baking,” she continues. “Don’t you get it? You say ‘smiles’, but smiles come in all sorts of types. I personally think that nothing else can take the place of the emotions I get from eating one of your cakes. Isn’t that what you’ve been working towards achieving?”
Kashou explains to Azuki that he’s concerned that he’s still “lacking” something. He thinks back over the lessons his former mentor taught him in France, and recalls that she highlighted the importance of adding “personal flair” — and that, having taught him everything she could, he would need to “complete what he’d learned on his own”.
His father’s words still ring in his head, too; the accusation that his cooking had “no core” — and that, moreover, his insistence that he “wants to bring smiles to everyone’s faces” are nothing more than words that he keeps hiding and running behind. Ultimately, while the trip away doesn’t allow him to reach any conclusive answers, he does at least manage to clear his head somewhat.
Upon returning to La Soleil, Kashou decides to experiment. Maple, seemingly the member of the cast with the most refined palate, agrees to help him with his, encouraging him to think a little outside his own self-imposed mission — beginning with baking something that is not created with “everyone” in mind, but rather just something that he wants to bake.
As it turns out, this doesn’t help much, since his own preferences mostly coincide with what he believes will “bring smiles to everyone’s faces”. So the next step from here is to stop thinking of “everyone” and instead think of “someone”. If he were to bake a cake for one specific catgirl, for example, what might that look like?
Having taken a series of increasingly ridiculous requests, Kashou believes that he might be onto something, but also notes that as soon as the intended recipient of the cake leaves, the cake itself loses a lot of its personality. It’s all about context; something he creates can have meaning and context, but, divorced of that meaning and context, it becomes just another cake with nothing particularly special about it.
While Kashou realises that there’s something important to learn here, it also saddens him somewhat. Because although he’s figuring things out, he doesn’t feel like he’s making any progress towards his eventual goal — and that makes him frustrated that he can’t live up to the expectations he believes others have of him, including his beloved catgirls.
“The fact that you guys are cheering me on is actually putting a lot of pressure on me,” he eventually admits to a concerned Cinnamon and Maple. “Lately, I feel like the more support I get from you guys, the more pain it causes me. I absolutely hate feeling that way, but I’m aware of the fact that I’ve been losing my composure. And I’m afraid that eventually, even though it’s all in my head, I won’t be able to keep myself in check and I’ll end up pushing you all away from me. I’m so grateful to have you all, but I’m having more moments where I feel like I want to be by myself.”
Kashou immediately regrets his candour, but in situations like this it’s usually for the best that you clearly communicate your true feelings. After all, there’s absolutely no question that his catpanions’ unwavering support for him was delivered with good intentions — and not one of them would have wanted him to end up feeling this way. But he does, and now everyone has to figure out what to do next.
First up, releasing some physical tension is a good start, and the exact means through which that is achieved depends on if you pick the 18+ options or not. Maple in particular, who becomes rather more open and honest about such things when in intimate situations, notes that Kashou has a tendency of holding himself back too much, not only physically but also emotionally; she encourages him to feel more comfortable expressing himself and, of course, to come to any of his catpanions if he feels “pent up” in any way — be that in need of bursting into tears or busting a fat nut.
It works, though; the mental clarity that can come with physical release — whatever form said release might take — can often lead you to think of things that might not have occurred to you otherwise. And so it is that Kashou comes to an important realisation: he loves, respects and trusts his catpanions, and as such he feels comfortable and confident leaving La Soleil entirely in their hands for a few days while he returns to France in the hopes of once again studying under his mentor.
Those of us looking in from the outside can see that this is something Kashou should have probably done a whole lot sooner than he does in the grand scheme of the narrative, but his hesitance is understandable. La Soleil is his baby, after all, and it’s never easy to leave something so important to you in the care of someone else, however much you might love and trust them.
On top of that, he’d been continually remembering that his mentor had concluded their time together by saying there was nothing more she could teach him, and that he would have to discover his own answers for himself. And with that in mind, a trip to France might be an entirely fruitless endeavour. But doing something is better than doing nothing and hoping things change for the better.
Upon arriving at his mentor’s shop — and discovering that a deeply worried Shigure had tailed him all the way there — Kashou discovers that Beignet, as his mentor is known, has been happily continuing to run her bakery just as she always has. And, despite her reassertion that she has nothing else to teach him, she is more than happy to take Kashou on for a couple of days to see if he can figure anything out while working under her.
We’re also introduced to a new catgirl at the original La Soleil — Fraise, who works for Beignet. Fraise is a polite young girl who works hard and diligently, and it’s clear she’s well-loved by Beignet, who is otherwise on her own. She’s also rather perceptive; not only is it clear that she immediately recognises Kashou upon his arrival — more on that in a moment — but she also correctly notes that Beignet is noticeably more happy whenever she is talking with both Kashou and Shigure.
The background between Kashou and Fraise is simple — when he first studied under Beignet, Fraise was a nameless, seemingly homeless kitten, and she clearly remembers a particular act of kindness from Kashou on one specific occasion. He was making macaron a la fraise and, in true cat-like tradition, the as-yet unnamed Fraise was interested. Kashou gave her one to try and it transpires she was so taken with the flavour that she has spent the subsequent years of her life pining after Kashou in the hope he would one day return. She even convinced Beignet to take her in and allow her to work in the shop in the hopes that she might one day meet Kashou again.
This all comes to light when Kashou makes those very same macarons for everyone one evening, completely oblivious to the inadvertent meaning behind them. Fraise is moved to tears by the pleasant surprise of being able to re-experience this important memory once again — only this time as a fully-grown catgirl rather than a young child. In doing so, she demonstrates to Kashou that his work can most certainly have real, long-lasting meaning — though it takes him some time to truly realise this.
This is a lesson that Beignet learned long ago, so she figures it is finally time to share a story with Kashou — exactly how her bakery got its name, and how she developed her distinctive flavours. It seems that on a visit to Japan, she fell in love with a certain gentleman, married him and bore him a son. Said son was thoroughly enamoured with his mother’s cooking, and described her ability to put smiles on people’s faces with her cakes as her being “like the sun”. But one day she had to leave; in an interesting mirror of Kashou’s situation, she was also the heir to a long line of Western bakers and, following the death of her older brother, felt that she was unable to just let the family tradition die out. So she left Japan — leaving behind her son and her husband in the process.
“I was still young back then and not wise,” she admits. “I tried chasing after a lot of things. After I lost it all, I realised what was truly precious to me. To me, my pastries were always something that brought a smile to my son’s face. The pastries I make are imbued with the flavour that my young son complimented me for. I think that I still make them to this day on the off-chance that my son might eat them in joy one day.”
It’s a difficult situation, of course, and it’s obvious that Beignet has regrets. But Kashou also notes that her decisions up until this point have led to joy as well as heartbreak; without that fateful decision to leave Japan, he would have never met her for starters — and thus he might never have started on his own path of pursuing his confectionery dreams. And this isn’t even considering what might have happened to Fraise if no-one had rescued her from the streets.
“I couldn’t consider what you did at the time as a mistake,” Kashou says. “I do think it’s a fact that you couldn’t take your son’s feelings into consideration at the time. Still, if your son is an adult now, I’m pretty sure that he’s considering how you must’ve felt, too.”
Upon his return to Japan, Kashou decides to approach things with renewed vigour — just in time for the Christmas rush. He resolves to bake something special for a Minaduki family Christmas party — and that this time around, it’s going to be something that will truly impress his father. He’s learned a lot, and he’s truly touched lives even well beyond his immediate family — this latter point is driven home by an impromptu visit from a now grown-up Milk, a minor character from the first two volumes of Nekopara who was just a young kitten when we last saw her — and thus he just needs to consider all of this information rattling around inside his head in order to finally achieve his goal.
With all this in mind, when the time comes for him to bake something special for the family Christmas party, he takes an eminently sensible approach that manages to embrace his core ideal of bringing smiles to everyone’s faces, while simultaneously acknowledging everyone’s individuality, respecting his father’s wishes for him and, indeed, representing himself, too. The result is a curious cake that incorporates elements of both Western and Japanese confectionery — and it moves his father to tears.
He doesn’t just shed a tear due to the quality of Kashou’s cake, mind; probably a more significant contributor to his feelings is exactly what the cake represents: the mending of family bonds — and in more ways than one. Not only does Kashou’s cake demonstrate the fact that he was willing to do whatever it took to please those of his own blood without sacrificing his own individuality, it also provides Kashou’s father the opportunity to rekindle a connection he once thought lost: the bond between himself and his mother. His mother, who he knew could bring smiles to everyone’s faces with her cakes; his mother, who he once described as being “like the sun”.
We leave Nekopara Vol. 4 on a positive note. It’s a powerful, emotional journey for Kashou, his catpanions and his family as a whole — but everyone comes out of the other end stronger. And there are just enough loose narrative threads still tantalisingly dangling by the time the credits roll to make a Vol. 5 a complete certainty at this point. Whether the inevitable fifth installment will show up in a timely manner remains to be seen — it took three years for Vol. 4 to finally appear, after all — but I think it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the last of Kashou the confectioner and the rest of his family.
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