Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai Vol. 1 - Manga Review

Life is already hard for a stray cat, but wandering samurai Norachiyo’s fearsome reputation and unparalleled swordsmanship have ensured that he has plenty of enemies on his tail.

The Lowdown

Wandering samurai Norachiyo may have lost his master, but he hasn’t lost his pride. Wearing the bell of a “kept cat”, Norachiyo wanders from town to town protecting the weak, but he’s got a stable of enemies fearsome enough to match his reputation. There are plenty of cats who want the head of this famous stray, but all Norachiyo wants to do is find the place calling for him.

How Was It?

I don’t think I ever expected to see a series with cats as the star characters in a classic wandering-samurai story, so Nekogahara even as a concept continues to be quite fascinating to me. The premise is fairly simple – Norachiyo is a fearsome and enigmatic masterless cat-samurai who wanders from town to town and gets into confrontations with evil-doers – but one of the problems that surfaces early on is that Norachiyo is a little too enigmatic to hold the story up. His backstory is explored a little bit, but his personality is almost non-existent aside from his desire to find his place to die, and this doesn’t make for the most compelling story when combined with the simplicity of the rest of the story as he fights a number of battles against baddies.

Although I found Norachiyo himself to be on the blander side, one thing I did want to see more of was the development of this world because I thought it had a number of engaging concepts underpinning it in a creative way. We see the concept of a kept-cat being consistently referenced, and although this wasn’t explored in a substantial way I liked the way that this played into the whole idea of humans being god-like figures in this world. I’m really curious to see if this story does take place in the “real-world” in some sense with humans fighting their own wars in tandem with the cats, and this could get really interesting if done right. This concept leads to perhaps the single coolest recurring scene in this volume where we see Norachiyo taking on an awesomely drawn human samurai in his memories, and I really, really hope that this gets examined because it would be great way to flesh out this world as well as give Norachiyo’s backstory a lot more relevance.  

While the Nekogahara’s story is competent if a little bit underdeveloped, the art is another aspect which was a mixed bag. At first glance, the art works really well – it has a pleasantly stylized look that really brings a unique aesthetic to Norachiyo’s world akin to a painting due to the sharp lines and minimal use of shading, and it all just looks plain cool in a lot of the stationary scenes. I enjoyed the character designs a lot – chances are if you’re reading this series that you have some desire to see cats doing cool things as samurai, and I can say that this volume delivers in this regard nicely in terms of showing a varied range of memorable character designs which feel true to the setting being depicted in a charming cat-like way. The expression are great as well, and I really enjoyed the way that we would get panels zooming in at dramatic moments to capture a grimace from a villain or a sneer from Norachiyo to amp up the drama of a particular scene.

For all the things the art does well, the biggest problem is that the action scenes are quite difficult to read at times. Takei-sensei’s style attempts to capture the look of inky being splattered in a lot of scenes to show the ferocity of the battle accompanied by jagged lines to show cuts, but the problem here is that this leads to a few panels where it is almost impossible to make out what is going on due to things becoming overly stylized. Some of the transitions in the action are really poorly done as well, and there were a couple places where it felt like a panel might have been missing to bridge the gap between movements. An example of this that sticks out is a scene later in the volume where a character goes to the washroom before suddenly being attacked without a panel making it clear how this actually happened. Even after looking at the panels multiple times I couldn’t tell if there was a transition here, and this was one of many scenes that required a couple looks to try and discern what the panel was supposed to show. Given that these are supposed to be some of the pivotal moments of entertainment in this volume, it was frustrating to feel distracted from the actual action in trying to figure out what was going on. With that said, there are a number of full-page spreads which are gorgeous and really do a good job taking advantage of the art-style in a way that is clearer, and I hope that the art evens out as the series progresses.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve dreamed of seeing cats taking the starring role in a samurai story, Nekogahara is the manga for you despite some of its drawbacks. I didn’t dislike it by any means, but there were definitely some pretty notable problems that hindered my enjoyment quite significantly. Although he has a backstory that just screams potential in terms of showing it on-screen in future volumes, Norachiyo’s a little too much of an enigma to be very engaging at this stage in the series. Additionally, the overarching story isn’t that present as he goes from town to town, and the action scenes are more difficult to read than they should be due to an art style which unfortunately hinders their clarity. It’s a rough start, but there’s some definitely some potential with this series that I hope it makes good on as it progresses. 


Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai Vol. 1 was published by Kodansha Comics USA on October 18th, 2016. Authored by Hiroyuki Takei, the series is currently ongoing and published by Kodansha's Shonen Magazine Edge

Verdict:

B-

Date of Publication: October 18th, 2016

Author: Hiroyuki Takei

Translator: Alethea & Athena Nibley

Editor: Ajani Oloye

Publisher: Kodansha Comics USA




Matt

Matt is a broke law student by day, broke law student by night, and one of the co-founders of Taykobon in his dwindling spare time. Although his favourite series tend to be shonen adventure series, he also has a soft spot for slice-of-life shojo romances. He enjoys following the manga industry, and is a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Blue Jays in other nonexistent spare time. 

Favourite series: Bakuman

Favourite author: Io Sakisaka