Book: If Cats Disappeared From the World


If Cats Disappeared from the World

English Book Title

If Cats Disappeared From the World


Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland







By: Nicholas Driscoll

Memento mori—with cats. Most people don’t really like thinking about their own death, but everything goes easier with a furry kitten cuddling in the lap. If Cats Disappeared From the World, originally published in Japan in 2012 by first-time author Genki Kawamura and later produced as the Toho film of the same name in 2016, eventually found its way to the English-speaking world through the efforts of Tokyo-based freelance translator Eric Selland in 2018. Written in a simple and whimsical style, the tale plumbs potentially traumatic subject matter with a lightly comedic, slightly melancholic, magical realist approach as a nameless postman finds himself saddled with terminal cancer at a young age and just days to live… Unless he makes a deal with the Devil to allow for something in the world to be utterly destroyed in return for each additional day extended upon his grievously foreshortened lifespan. Kawamura strives for a thoughtful, pop-level meditation on the meaning of life and death in the face of tragedy, but at least in the English version, much of the thoughtful is overcome by the soda pop.

The set up does have a decent sense of shock to it. The nameless protagonist has a grade 4 brain tumor, and upon stumbling home, comes face to face with his doppelganger—the aforementioned Devil, who has a taste for Hawaiian shirts. The Faustian pact goes like this: Each day, the Devil gives the man a chance for a longer life—if he is willing to sacrifice from the world all of some object or thing of the Devil’s choosing. You know, things like telephones, watches, whatever matches the deceiver’s whims that day. And initially, the young postal worker goes along with the scheme, desperate for a few more hours, a chance to see his loved ones again. But the price is high, and with each day, the world changes more and more dramatically. What is the value of a life? When is it okay to let go?

So, don’t expect a serious consideration of these questions. Right away If Cats Disappeared From the World is ripping away cornerstones of technology all over the world, with barely a minor inconvenience to society at large. We are talking the ability to measure time for everyone in the world, just gone—and the world barely hiccups as our protagonist blithely ponders his existence anew. There is a weird sort of innocence, or a blundering maladroit brain stumble, to his thought processes. I often found it hard to really believe this guy and some of the choices he makes, and the frankly naïve and half-educated pontifications that come from his pen. At one point, for example, we are supposed to believe the dude chooses to stare at a blank screen for several hours when faced with the choice of one last movie viewing. It’s supposed to be profound; it feels mildly deranged.

And yet… Still. Author Kawamura, I think, was not aiming for philosophical depth, but a light skimming of nostalgic yearning seasoned with humor and pathos. Our hero with no name prances across his half-lived existence, his painful losses, his confused love-life, and his cats—and there is a charm to the absurdity. It’s easy to relate to a man who looks back and sees crumbled dreams and aimlessness and confusion and regret, as well as bemusement and wonder, as he electrically tiptoes through another today. The idea that each day, another something important disappears—well, it feels like a meditation on what the dying must fear as their everything slips into oblivion. I get that fear, having gone through my own health crisis recently—and so I find myself sometimes wondering in shivering prickle moments whether this is the last movie I see, the last book I ever read, the final article I write, the end-meeting with my most loved someones. Kawamura takes this morbid panic, and slaps it onto a global scale—the beloved objects are disappearing for everyone, or so it seems. That’s how it feels to the dying. What would you do?

On a whim, I attended a screening of the movie version back in 2016 and found its pseudo-religious frothy fantasy palatable largely through the lovable antics of Takeru Sato (famed for the live action Ruruoni Kenshin films, as well as Kamen Rider Den-O). Sato was great as the hapless schmutz (perhaps not so dissimilar to his Kamen Rider hero role), and even better as the leering funky-shirt-wearing Lucifer, and he immediately went on my to-watch list of memorably entertaining current day actors. The book lacks Sato’s performance, and so we are left pondering the thin film of philosophy and clunking translated text. While neither the book nor the movie strike me as classic material, I would lean towards the movie as a better experience.

Still, even if the prose and the pondering doesn’t always match the high-concept set-up, the book whizzes by, with an easy, cream-soup prose that slurps on down. I choked on the sometimes awkward phrasing and corny turns of phrase, but I still felt something of that ache that Kawamura and his translator Selland seemed to be grasping for. The book operates within the confines of convention, and the ending may feel disappointingly familiar to some, and the unapologetic sentimentality can grind… but this is the kind of text born for a summer beach read, and if it can really deliver a moment or two of meaningful reflection on the meaning of this often crazy life, there is value there.