Q: What’s Michael? A: Kobayashi’s Most Special Cat

« Michael is, simply put, Japan’s version of Garfield, Heathcliff and Krazy Kat all rolled into one. » — Wizard: The Guide to Comics*

* I actually disagree with all three comparisons, aside from the fact that the first two comics are also about orange cats, but this is the review Dark Horse used to promote the series.

What’s Michael? (ホワッツマイケル? in Japanese) is a comic series by Makoto Kobayashi about a cat named Michael who goes about his cat life in a pretty standard way. He spends most of the day snoozing, has distinct food preferences, and likes to meow loudly at night while courting his favourite cat lady. One would not be entirely unjustified in thinking that cat lovers will read any old comic that prominently features felines (I have occasionally been guilty of that myself!), but I am convinced that there’s something special about this series.

One of the things that makes it so endearing is that Kobayashi has a very good grip on feline body language, making it fun to follow even the poorest excuse for a plot, like for instance Michael contemplating which cozy enough spot to select for a nap. That being said, he doesn’t limit himself to realistic cat situations, often featuring cats acting like (very goofy) people, parodying human and feline at the same time.

Natural cat body language… and different ways in which cats just can’t bend, cheerfully pointed out.

Some readers are more interested in the outlandish stories, of which there are many (ranging from cat parodies of various movies to plain weirdness), some develop a soft spot for the recurring human (or semi-human) characters. Michael himself switches owners like switching gloves, depending on the needs of the story, and there is not much continuity. Kobayashi’s ideas can be a little hiss or miss, but there’s something here for everyone… provided you like felines, of course… adventures of a vampire count who is scared of cats are side-by-side with wacky cat food commercials, depictions of everyday life of various cat-besieged country bumpkins alternate with cat street gang rumbles, and all of that is sprinkled with humans-as-pets interludes. And, naturally, our ordinary yet handsome tabby Michael drinks, sleeps and plays alongside Popo, his wife, their kittens, and a rotating cast of other cats (Catzilla comes to mind!) and the poor, often put-upon dog nicknamed Bear.

The Count’s quest for a pretty neck to bite is, as always, thwarted by Michael or one of his relatives.
Michael, Popo and their kittens on the prowl for a soft spot for a snooze.
One of the strip’s running jokes is that Michael passionately hates Morning Cat canned food, and will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid eating it.

The following sequence illustrates one of Kobayashi’s favourite tricks, namely to start off with more-or-less normal cat behaviour and veer off into an unexpected direction:

As you have probably noticed, Kobayashi often opts for exaggeration when it comes to people’s facial expressions, which sometimes leads to results that are more grotesque than funny. He also enjoys drawing pretty women, but that is more obvious elsewhere, for instance in his series Club 9 (Dark Horse has published 3 volumes of that and abandoned the project before the story’s end, much to my annoyance).

In Japan, What’s Michael? was published in the weekly magazine Morning starting in 1984, and it even won the Kodansha Manga Award in 1986. There seems to also have been quite a few collections released.

One of the Japanese editions of volume 1 and 2.
Cover of another collection from 1987; Bear likes to sit and watch cats playing.

In 1988, its popularity was also rewarded with a 45-episode anime which was also broadcast in Italy and Spain (at least according to a Russian article I found). The following is the cover of a collection of these episodes, as far as I could ascertain:

In the US, it was published by Dark Horse‘s manga imprint. I am not entirely sold on the translation (the aforementioned country bumpkins, for instance, talk as if they were in a cheesy would-be Western written by somebody who has no understanding of the genre), and it also bothers me that the comics were published in the standard American left-to-right reading direction. I think it is a relatively recent phenomenon to leave manga as it was drawn when translating it into European languages – audiences have become more refined.

An example of the story going interestingly off the rails, in the proper right-to-left format.

Apparently there are stories that have never been translated, as they were deemed unfit for Western audiences (those intrigue me, yet my knowledge of Japanese is nil!), but those that were selected by whomever is in charge of these decisions have been collected in 11 volumes, published between 1997 and 2006. Most of them are quite out of print by now; I managed to gather all eleven over the years, though while writing this post I discovered that Dark Horse has decided to rescue this series out of its out-of-print-darkness and re-publish the works in two 500-page volumes. Am I going to purchase those? Yes, of course, as there is bonus material involved! Though the wrong reading direction remains wrong, alas.

Volume 8 of Dark Horse’s initial What’s Michael? run.

I enjoyed reading a review of the first volume of the reissue on Al’s Manga Blog, and maybe you will, too: What’s Michael? Fatcat Collection Vol 1.

~ ds