Manga-ka: Yuji Iwahara
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: January 2010
Synopsis: “While the council members are away, the cat demon will play! The Matabi Academy student council (and their cats) are on high alert: Spirit Beasts could be possessing students and hiding among the student body, waiting to make a move! Amidst all this tension, Yumi (with Kansuke in tow) decides to unwind at a dorm slumber party with some friends and a good scary story. But when an actual ghostly encounter cuts the party short, Yumi wanders off the school grounds…and right into the maw of another Spirit Beast, Daraku of the Deep! To make matters worse, she’s not the only student council member to take the bait, and with the school practically defenceless, the evil cat demon, Kaen, is about to strike on their home turf!!”
After the initial volumes set up the series’ tone and world building, Iwahara is now getting around to revealing the inner machinations of the Spirit Beasts, as well as enlightening us on other secrets of the Matabi school. Continuing the inventive visual prowess he built with series like King of Thorn and Chikyu Masaki, Cat Paradise has moved into fascinating territory, combining Japanese horror traditions with super-powered fantasy and environmentalist philosophy.
Where King of Thorn was about the destructive and creative forces behind human evolution, Cat Paradise presents the views of those we’ve stepped on along the way. Here the Spirit Beasts unveil the reasons behind their grudge against Sandosu and his family. These reasons relate to environmental concerns, but avoid being overly preachy in a manner that was refreshing as it becomes a history of survival of the fittest. This adds a slightly grey aspect to some characters’ actions, as developments lead to a major revelation about Sandosu and the placement of the barrier that protects the school and keeps the Sprit Beasts sealed away.
In this volume, Iwahara continues to build on his wide cast of characters, from Yumi’s friends outside the student council to the antagonists themselves. The placement of the Spirit Beasts within the school makes for an interesting aspect, folding themselves into everyday life which gives Iwahara more chances for the opposing to interact in a way that suits the quick pace of the series and its school setting. A rather delightful chapter concerns Yumi’s non-super powered classmates as their attempts at spooky sleepover stories result in a real ghost that propels the plot forward into a major confrontation. Soon we move onto such oddities as undead samurai legions and the sad truth behind the ghost and how it relates to the Spirit Beast’s plot. Iwahara manages to take yet another cliché of school manga and use it to move things forward, similar to how he played with our expectations in the first volumes’ use of numerous manga traditions in the opening chapter.
The cats themselves continue to be a wonderful element, with their personalities true to real cats and the artwork often shifting to suit their perspectives. Many of the scenes involving the cats make the surroundings seem more expansive as the cats crawl about the school, and deal with things like doorknobs that require skilful jumping and creeping about endless dark hallways. It’s an element that divides the series into human and cat viewpoints, and helps to create an atmosphere that really suits the horror aspects of the series.
The artwork continues to be strong, focusing on deep blacks and an illustrative, detailed approach to cartoony designs. Iwahara notes in this bonus manga that he doesn’t know how to lay down tone well, but I’m grateful for that if it means he has to take the less lazy approach and rely on cross hatching and thick pen work with good line variance. It makes for a distinct visual style that excels above and beyond the usual approach of just sticking on some tone while characters float in non-descript backgrounds. The way the powers of the cats and their partners are portrayed continue to be a strong point, from Yumi and Kansuke’s adorable and inventive knitting superpower, to light power butterflies, to Musashimaru’s size, to the fun addition of a Silver Surfer-esque cat/student duo. The entertaining way they combine their powers to take on the whale Spirit Beast of this volume makes for one of the best visuals of the book.
This is a series I’d recommend to comic fans all kinds, especially those who are feline inclined. Iwahara‘s style makes this a good crossover series for comics readers, especially superhero readers if only for the strange, creative powers used in the series, yet still one with an approach fans of Japanese manga will be comfortable with – a more mainstream sort of illustrative look with strong roots in the shonen tradition. With a focus on inventive visuals and intriguing fantasy plotline, Cat Paradise forsakes the usual fan service and clichés for something more substantial, a school manga that takes advantage of it’s setting, being a home, a school and a battleground for all the cast members – a character in it’s own small way. I could babble more about how cute the cats are, but that might scare some people off – Cat Paradise is a series with lots to offer it’s readers, and being cat centric is an added bonus.