Damn, they're cute. Not the girl—her ears. She is a catgirl—a female with cat ears. To underscore their feline traits, some have cat teeth,and even cat eyes. In Japan, the cat ears are called "nekomimi", and they're more than a simple personification of cats.
Bikini models don cat ears when they want to be cute. Anime after anime have token catgirls. Heck, they even pop up in video games, and, yes, dirty movies.
When you see catgirls, Japan immediately leaps to mind—even though America has its own proud catgirl history. Catwoman, who debuted in the 1940s, wasn't a catgirl. She was a, well, cat woman. The 1960s brought Josie and the Pussycats. In 2006, it was adapted into a short-lived manga-style comic. Throughout the 1980s, Broadway was dominated Cats, the default musical for tourists when they couldn't get tickets to anything else.
Even though, America has its own iconic catgirls, the feline-like females are synonymous with Japan. Catgirls are another example of Japan being able to make something inseparable from its own culture. They are symbolic of anime and manga characters.
Catgirls are not some passing fancy or superficial trend. They have their roots in a long tradition of yokai or Japanese goblins, monsters, spirits, or specters. Catgirls are a modern, albeit geeky, take on both the supernatural and the oh-so cute.
As in the West, cats are associated with the supernatural, with the likes of witches or Alice in Wonderland. The same is true in Japan, pointing to a largely universal view of those four-legged critters.
In Japanese folklore, "bakeneko" are demon cats able to do things like become humanoid. Old superstitions included cutting off cats' tails so they couldn't turn into fork-tailed demon cats. There's even one famous bakeneko story about a man whose discovered that his shut-in mother had been replaced by a large cat-like beast wearing his mom's clothes, gnawing on animal meat.
Characters with cat ears, or wolf ears made sporadic appearances in Japanese popular culture, especially throughout the last century. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the popular yokai manga GeGeGe no Kitaro featured a character named "Neko-Musume" ("Cat Girl"), with cat features and the ability to shapeshift into a feline.
One manga that helped to popularize the catgirl character was Yumiko Oshima's 1978 yarn The Star of Cottonland, which tells the story of a small, abandoned kitten. In the manga, the cat, named "Chibi-neko", is drawn as a little girl with cat ears. The reason is that Chibi-neko thought she was a person.
The Star of Cottonland was shojo manga, or manga aimed at young girls. During the 1970s, young girls had spent much of the decade buying Hello Kitty coin purses and stationary. Cats were cute. Catgirls were cuter.
As popular as The Star of Cottonland was, there are those in Japan who claim the origin of catgirl characters is American sci-fi. Translated into Japanese in 1976, Cordwainer Smith's short story The Ballad of Lost C'Mell followed C'Mell, a woman created from cat DNA, as she tried to lead a rebellion.
The story did have an impact on Japanese sci-fi, but it's difficult draw a straight line from C'Mell to, for example, Chibi-neko. Cottonland's Oshima didn't invent the catgirl—Osamu Tezuka, Japan's Walt Disney, is sometimes given credit for their credit—they'd always been around in manga in one form or another.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the popularity of catgirls exploded in Japanese anime, manga, and video games. This is the period that Japan took ownership of catgirls, a trope that had existed in the West. By defining the characters and perfecting them, Japan made catgirls Japanese and a symbol of the country's otaku subculture.
A wide variety of catgirls appeared in the '80s and beyond, whether they were full-on catgirls like Felicia from Darkstalkers, girls dressed in cat outfits like Azumanga Daioh's Chiyo Mihama, or cat-brain-powered androids like Nuku Nuku from All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku. The following decade saw the inevitable rise of the Catboy: boys with cat ears and cat qualities.
Some early catgirl characters like Neko-Musume had a supernatural quality. Chibi-neko was a cat who thought it was a little girl. But catgirls weren't limited to the supernatural or grounded in real cats. Characters began dressing as catgirls or would simply change into catgirls. The cat quality was cute enough to transcend any supernatural or real origins. They became signifiers for cute, mischievous, or even aloof behavior, just as glasses for otaku symbolize females who read too many comics or play too many video games. Shorthand.
Cats have a certain animal magnetism that crosses cultures and borders. Japan saw it was onto something with catgirls and ran with it. This is, after all, a country that is susceptible to fads, trends, and booms on a major scale, something that researcher Shinji Takenaga once pointed out to me. But Takenaga added that large scale cultural booms are becoming increasingly rare, since Japanese consumer society is becoming increasingly niche and fragmented. Anime, manga, and video games do cater to niche audiences. Their smaller, niche trends and small booms become self-feeding ecosystems, with new variations of trends like catgirls spreading like a virus, and becoming the norm, the standard, the prevailing aesthetic that defines each generation.
There is a universal quality about catgirls, a quality that Japan digested and made its own. The West might have cat-like characters, but catgirls are all Japan's.
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