Manga-ka: Risa Motoyama
Publisher: Digital Manga
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: November 2012
Synopsis: “In an instant, a host of the recently deceased discover that they’ve been given another shot at happiness…as adorable cats! Will they make the most of their seven-day opportunity? Or will the fur fly as they struggle to figure out what life’s all about? Start With a Happy Ending follows finicky felines and curious kittens as they take a crash course in the ups and downs of existence! Can reincarnation give a legion of lost souls the wake-up call they truly need?”
This is a tricky manga for me to review as it hits two of my biggest weak points: cute cats and didactic stories where the main character learns an important lesson. Even though I know deep down that I’m being manipulated, I just can’t resist either of these things.
Start With a Happy Ending is made up of fifteen short stories with the same premise: a human dies and gets one week as a cat to tie up any loose ends. Why a cat? Because cats are awesome! Well, that, and also because most of the characters in the manga die while attempting to save a cat or have spent their lives being kind to cats. In return the Cat God steps in and gives the human a seven-day reprieve in the body of a cat. Each person reacts differently. Some are dead-set on continuing their life as a human, even though their new cat-forms make that nearly impossible. Others lose sight of their humanity and become almost fully feline.
My favourite example of this comes from a later story in the collection, ‘Freedom.’ In it a middle-aged mother dies when a cat falls off an apartment building’s balcony and lands on her. Once in the body of a cat, the woman spends five of her seven days sleeping in an especially comfy laundry basket. Weirdly enough, this experience makes her realize that she was suffocating her daughter and that her kid will grow up to be miserable if she doesn’t do something.
It sounds mawkish and nonsensical when summed up, but Motoyama is a very gifted short story writer. Most of the stories have very simple morals: don’t worry about how others see you, just be yourself, take care of the things and people important to you, follow your dreams, etc. Even though the morals might be cliché, the stories supporting them are deftly done. They are light-hearted but also bittersweet– the main character dies in each one, after all.
Because the stories center around death we get to see a lot of families and friends grieving. Even though it’s tough to see scene after scene of bereaved loved ones, Motoyama is also able to show that even in grief there are moments of joy and happiness. In one story a man who loved classical music comes home to see how his wife and son are doing. As he watches from the window his son plays a wailing guitar solo (“This one’s for you, dad!” the son yells beforehand). The dead father cringes (he hates rock music), but he’s also touched by his son’s passion. It’s a moment that manages to be funny, sweet, and sad.
Every story ends on a happy note, thank god, because not only does the manga deal with humans dying but also with kitties dying. That’s right: in nearly every story a cat dies. If you just read that and winced, then be aware that this manga pulls no punches (on the other hand, if you read the previous sentence and had no reaction, then you’re probably more of a dog person). Luckily the manga deals with rebirth as well as death. Even though there is some depressing subject matter, the manga is overwhelmingly hopeful.
And it’s funny, too. My favourite story in the manga revolves around a young software designer working on the latest instalment in a popular video game series (it looks like it’s some kind of cat-girl dating sim). He dies while out getting supper for his team and wakes up in the body of a cat. After hearing the spiel from the Cat God about how he has one week to tie up any lose ends, Takiguchi continues to work on the game. His fellow programmers, burnt out from consecutive all-nighters, just accept that Takiguchi’s a cat now and continue working. It’s a surreal but strangely relatable moment.
The art is slightly blocky and childlike. It reminds me a lot of Love Roma, not just stylewise but also with its low-key delivery. Motoyama’s human character designs are rather simple, but her talent really shines with the cat character designs. There are stripped cats, calico cats, fat cats, skinny cats, ugly cats, cute cats. All of the different cats are distinct and interesting. The manga may not have a lot of flare (the backgrounds are sparse and the layouts simple), but it does have a lot of awesomely designed cats.
If you’re not a cat person, or roll your eyes at sentimental stories, then this manga might be a little much. But if you are anything like me then Start With a Happy Ending will have you crying more than a bag of chopped onions.
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Digital copy provided by eManga for review purposes