Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

The setting of the novel, contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War, in the late Meiji era, was a time of great change in Japan. New social classes were formed as the result of the rise of Japanese capitalism; the eagerness to adopt Western ways also led to social changes. Sseki’s personal experiences with the West convinced him that hasty changes motivated by the outside world were, if not dangerous, at least foolhardy. His own response, evident even in this early novel, is to achieve some balance between Eastern and Western cultures.

The choice of a cat narrator allows Sseki to handle these serious themes lightly. The cat refers to himself proudly as a Japanese cat, prepared to join with other Japanese cats to fight in the Russo-Japanese War. When the female cat dies, the narrator observes that her owners buried her with the proper Buddhist rites, just as if she were a human being. The conflation of the cat world with the human world thus suggests a similar synthesis of two separate cultures.

The conversations which make up the bulk of I Am a Cat show at least the intellectual’s attempt at this synthesis. References to the history and literature of both Western and Eastern cultures abound. The episodic nature of the novel and its satiric tone evoke the eighteenth century English tradition of Laurence Sterne in Tristam Shandy (1759-1767), Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and the Japanese tradition of shaseibun (sketchwriting).

Yet Sseki does not take the intelligentsia too seriously either. If the group of talkers who meet at the teacher’s house feel superior to the businessman who grubs for money, they are made aware that intellectuals, too, must have a crass social value in this new world. The businessman will accept a scientist as a son-in-law provided he has the right degree; he wants only the worldly symbol of education, the degree of Ph.D. Sseki slyly pokes fun at his own world; Kangetsu’s thesis is “The Effects of Ultra-Violet Rays on the Electro Movement Action of the Frog’s Eyeball.” To analyze the effects, Kangetsu grinds away at crystal balls, trying to get the exact shape of a frog’s eyeball, from morning until night, seven days a week, for months at a stretch. It is a devastating critique of the nature of scholarship.

A letter from the provinces to one of the characters inserts another serious note; it mentions the classmates who died or were injured in the war, contrasting that stark reality with the leisurely life of the central characters. The stimulating, original opinions voiced in the rambling conversations also contrast with the equally detailed descriptions of the teacher’s physical ailments and his inability to act. When his wife finally persuades him to take her to a theater performance, for example, Kushami becomes ill and does not recover until it is too late to attend. Set against each other, the misfortunes of those who must leave their homes to fight and die for Japan with the intellectual who gets ill at the thought of any extra exertion even for entertainment, these incidents serve as Sseki’s critique of his own intellectual environment.

Ultimately, however, the lighthearted tone which permeates the book, and which is reinforced by the unusual point of view, blunts the effect of the satire. The abrupt death of the narrator suggests that Sseki could find no other way to end a novel that, having no underlying structure or overall theme to carry it forward, could ramble on endlessly.

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