I Am a Cat satirizes the life of Japanese intellectuals at the turn of the century. The episodic novel, narrated in the first person by a cat, proceeds as a series of discussions on a variety of historical, artistic, and philosophical topics, such as the history of peacocks as food, the mechanics of hanging, the decline of traditional Japanese attitudes. These discussions are often sparked by the personal experiences and memories of the main human characters or the cat-narrator.
The novel begins with the cat finding himself a home in the household of a teacher. The first two chapters make the most use of the idiosyncratic point of view of a cat. Thus, the first part of the narrative refers to the other cats in the neighborhood, in particular his romantic interest in a female cat and his strategy in dealing with a bully cat. The narrator, nimbly able to slip in un-noticed anywhere he wishes, observes the peculiar habits of human beings,leading to some sly, witty conclusions about the superiority of cats. At one point, for example, the narrator ponders the possibility of organizing a cat revolt against humanity.
The third chapter, which starts with the announcement of the death of the female cat, marks a shift, as if the author needed the stimulus of fresh characters to continue. The narrator states outright that he is inclined to forget that he is a cat, a hint from the author that the focus will change. A slender plot line is introduced when Mrs. Kaneda, also referred to as Mrs. Nose, comes to the Kushami household to garner information about Kangetsu as a possible husband for her daughter. Her husband, a wealthy businessman, will allow the marriage if Kangetsu finishes his thesis and earns his Ph.D. This proposal sets off another series of discussions, half serious, half comical, on the functions of noses, the wisdom of marrying, the questionable ethics of businessmen, and the subject of Kangetsu’s thesis.
The novel ambles along, alternating stretches of human conversations, which get longer, with the narrator’s feline observations and antics. The seventh chapter, for example, starts with the cat’s thoughts about sports and games and continues with a description of his favorite activities, such as jumping suddenly on a child’s back, hunting praying mantises or cicadas, peering at naked bodies in public baths. The basic method of the novel, beginning with a specific act or thought which by association leads to more abstract and philosophical discussions, is maintained. When in chapter 8 neighborhood tensions rise between the passive intellectuals who gather at the teacher’s house and the rambunctious students who cut through his property, the narrator observes that teasing monkeys and schoolteachers is a human way of showing superiority. He then falls into a meditation on frenzy, insanity, and thus back to the students’ battle with authority.
Finally, in the eleventh chapter, the neighborhood battle ends when Kangetsu announces that he has married a hometown girl. A minor character, a former houseboy of the Kushami household, enters to announce his engagement to the businessman’s daughter. The people who have gathered drink beer in celebration, an act which precipitates the abrupt ending. The cat sips the remaining beer; his intoxication makes him want to walk. He falls into a rain barrel and, unable to claw his way to the rim, he stops struggling and drowns. The novel ends with his dying prayer to Buddha.