“I’ve heard a cat’s grudge can be a lot more terrifying than you’d expect.”
This is a noir tale about hard-bitten (or hard-boiled) men involved in shady business and their love of cats which draws them to the Kitty and Me bar, run by a onetime pro wrestler.
Hitman Miyake (a.k.a. Undertaker) is utterly inconsolable; his beloved cat Cheriko has just died. He turns up at Kitty and Me where bar tender (and retired pro-wrestler) Nampla Tsuchida tells him about Dandy, a tuxedo cat, who is waiting for his missing master Onodera to return. It just so happens that Kouji Onodera is the name of the latest hit-job Undertaker has been sent…and at that moment the peace of the bar is rudely shattered as two men burst in. One throws himself in front of Undertaker as the other– face concealed – brandishes a revolver. Quick thinking on Undertaker’s part identifies the armed intruder as a policeman (the make of gun) and, called out, he beats a hasty retreat. Tsuchida greets the newcomer warmly as does Dandy, recognizing his long-missing master. This is Onodera, Undertaker’s target, marked out by the cross-shaped scar on his right cheek – the trademark that Hitman leaves on his victims. Is this a dead man walking? Or even a ghost? And who’s the policeman? What links these men and a hit job three years ago?
As Onodera and Miyake talk, we see the events that have led up to this night in the bar in a series of flashbacks – but not all in the order in which they occurred. The other two cat-loving regular customers in the bar cannot help but be drawn into the conversation. They are editor-in-chief of a publishing house, Kaizuka, and his client, ex-yakuza turned best-selling writer, Mukouyama, famous for his sensational exposés, such as My Pen is Looser Than My Lips. A sinister trail stretches back into Onodera’s past – and that of his partner, Kajita, when they were both detectives investigating illicit drug deals. What really happened three years ago? A plan is hatched to uncover the truth, no matter how dangerous that may be. And, as this is taking place in a cat bar, you can be sure that the cats will be involved in bringing the perpetrator/s to justice!
Mangaka Yourei Ono tells us in the afterword that this is their first published manga – and it’s very accomplished on the art front for a debut. The eye-catching pulp fiction art is great – and pitch-perfect for a tale set in a dark world of assassins, drug deals and undercover cops. However, a couple of art niggles: proportions aren’t always great (check out the overlarge hands on the cover) and the overall darkness pervading most of the night-time scenes means that it’s often really difficult to tell which man is Undertaker and which one his target, Onodera – adding in police inspector Sakota who also often looks spookily similar. In fact, this is such a problem that – even though Onodera is the one with the cross-shaped scar on his right cheek and Miyake sometimes wears glasses. No problems distinguishing one cat from another, however, with star cat Dandy, with his wide golden eyes and tuxedo coat – and each cat is given equal billing to the human characters.
But, boy, is this story hard to unravel! I love a complex mystery with unreliable narrators – but I kept wondering whether some of the pages had been bound in the wrong order as I flipped to and fro between flashbacks. With such a complicated time scheme, it would have helped to be able to tell the three main characters apart more easily.
Serious praise for translator Ajani Oloye who gives just the right hard-bitten, pulp fiction tone of voice to the characters’ interactions and finds apt localization equivalents for the double entendres (there are quite a few – this tale is not lacking in dark humour!). But this manga must have presented quite a challenge to translate! Also praise for letterer Abigail Blackman for conveying the many different voices (internal as well as in conversation) and the cats’ varied vocalizations so well.
Hard-Boiled Stories from the Cat Bar has been given a handsome, large format trade paperback from Yen Press with two gorgeous colour illustrations at the front; the mangaka uses autumnal colours to great effect here, as on the cover – and a page of translation notes at the end, after the mangaka’s afterword (which is worth reading).
A couple of trigger warnings: the first for cat lovers as – even though Tsuchida is fanatical about protecting his cat clients from anything harmful, including cigarette smoke – there are some depictions of and allusions to cruelty to animals. The second is that there is some graphic violence to humans depicted and described as well. These stories are truly hard-boiled as the title suggests.
In spite of all its narrative complications, Hard-Boiled Stories from the Cat Bar is a fascinating, if frustrating seinen read and will keep readers turning (and turning back) the pages. I’m really interested to see what this promising mangaka, Yourei Ono, comes up with next.