At the start of last season, Nekopara premiered to lackluster fanfare on Funimation as a mediocre harem anime featuring a cast of stereotypical “choose your flavor” girls all purring at an audience conceivably only made up of fans of the original visual novel series.
And I, reviewing the series for Anime Feminist’s premiere coverage, had the dubious honor of being the only professional reviewer to “endorse” it (if you ignore all the words I wrote that indicate the show is “awful actually” afterwards). And, for once, none of the trolls bothered swarming a controversial anime’s review on this site.
Indeed, many questioned why I would continue to watch this show when SO. MANY. BETTER. CATS. were contenders for “good anime cat” of the season. Frankly, I just felt kinship with many of the cats, even the perpetually horny Cinnamon.
But I, like many sensible people, recognized there were things deeply wrong with the world of Nekopara. Some expressed concerns that the catgirls were, like, three years old (adults in cat years!). Others decried how catgirls were required to wear bells around their necks to have freedom of movement, as if they were slaves. And still others were deeply concerned with how the show unabashedly catered to a cishet male-oriented gaze (it only took the show 11 minutes to show a cat camel toe).
These are all extremely valid criticisms, although they’re outside the scope of this article. I’m interested in yet another distressing undercurrent: economic exploitation.
Yes, even the horny catgirl anime can be a lesson in real-world inequality.
As the nonexistent pressure mounted on the franchise’s fans to explain how a visual novel where you sleep with a bunch of cats is “not that bad,” the original author of the series stepped in to release a series of tweets clarifying that the world of Nekopara was far less onerous than previously imagined. She laid foundations for a compassionate and loving world to cats.
“You must not abandon cats even if they are not humanoid. All cats deserve love.” “Cinnamon wears a collar because she likes to do so. No one forced her to put it on.” “Nekos have the freedom to choose their owner and occupation. There is a social security system for Nekos if they don’t work in the first place.”
Above all, Sayori asked folks: “Don’t think too much, just adore cats.”
I’m sorry Sayori, I am too invested in this lore. I thought too much.
Yes, hello, it’s me, your local unapologetic catgirl appreciator and catgirl, Chiaki. And I am here to tell you that cats deserve better in the world of Nekopara.
Though the title suggests a “Cat Paradise,” I ask: whom is it a paradise for?
You cannot create a world where humans enjoy the fruits of cats being cats and not offer the same luxury to cats themselves. The “paradise” offered in Nekopara is nothing more than a sham, a simulacrum, a lie sold to cats while the humans were the true “fat cats” all along.
Cats in Nekopara are undoubtedly second-class citizens, if that. They are closer to sub-human, as society treats them as pets and beings who lack autonomy. Although in the aforementioned tweet, cats are said to have social security and the freedom to choose their owners, there still exists a shortage for places where cats can live and their inevitable fate appears to be finding an owner who will put them to work.
For example, in the season finale of the show, the Nekopara crew help out the distressed owners of a beach house restaurant. Shigure, the owner of four of the seven central cats in the series, devises a simple marketing scheme which has rung true throughout the entirety of the series:
Moar Cats = Moar Profits.
Shigure thinks the solution to any difficult situation is to have a solid foundation for business and then add cats to the mix. As the crew prepares to depart, leaving the beach house wondering what they will do from now on without the La Soleil Patisserie cats, Shigure assures them not to worry. She then introduces the restaurant owners to cats who were looking for a home. The show ends on a positive note as a young cat welcomes a TV crew to their bustling establishment.
Cats help drive sales. Cats help drive a lot of sales. What other explanation can there be for all the cat-themed brands that seem so pervasive throughout this cat-obsessed version of Japan? The malls, the transportation passes, even the Internet seems to use cat-based branding strategies. It’s no wonder that businesses such as Beach Clubhouse Orange were left floundering when they tried to survive without the integration of cats into their branding strategy.
Cats thus serve an integral function to the Nekopara universe’s economy, similar to how they serve the real-world economy through “nekonomics.” They are the veritable maneki neko (lucky cats) to many businesses and their presence is as essential to a venture’s survival as Station Master Tama in real-world Western Japan.
And yet, the fact that cats are so revered and important raises so many questions. If cats are so essential, why are they not a part of regular life? As Shigure had to help find homes for cats, there would appear to be no shortage of cats, but they are markedly absent from the everyday world outside of specific contexts.
One must ask: are cats missing from daily life because of conscious framing or are they truly not present in daily life? Either answer signals a dire state for them.
On one hand, Nekopara could be purposefully depicting a world that is at once celebrating cats and ironically asserting human dominance. Similar to how Hollywood denied the presence of actual Asians in stories about Asia, Nekopara could as much be about the wonders of cat-kind in the same way The Good Earth is a celebration of China.
Cats are to be exoticized and consumed and nothing more, valued for unwanted jobs and sexualized, but not considered worthy or capable of holding equal societal privileges to humans. The entire premise of Nekopara’s “cats being cats” mentality is an exotified interpretation by humans of what cats “should be” to a human audience rather than what cats actually are.
Alternatively, Nekopara could be an accurate portrayal of a fictional universe where humanoid cats live among humans. This reality may be far more distressing, since that means the absence of cats from most aspects of everyday life is far more literal. Even this escapist fantasy world includes an exploited underclass.
Throughout the 12 episodes, the cats of Nekopara are afforded the freedom to move around in public because of the privileged status granted to them by the bell around their necks. The bell, awarded through an examination conducted by what I would assume is a government body, proves a grade-schooler’s level of maturity and gives cats a degree of autonomy and a right to find employment. And notably, these bells appear to be rare, because few cats aside from the central cast ever make an appearance on-screen.
Cats are absent from public life. Though the cast visits amusement parks, the beach, the mall, and a variety of other places, other cats are notably missing from these spaces. Where are they? Do they ever stop in to have some tea and cakes at La Soleil like the humans do? Are they even allowed to?
Stranger still, you never see male cats, whom Sayuri notes are “best known for their physical strength” and are thus working manual labor jobs.
This only reinforces the second-class nature of humanoid cats. Yes, male cats are known to be physically strong, but does that mean they are precluded from working at cafes or other less physically demanding jobs? What happens when a male cat has a disability? Where are the cats in public life? Why are they only present in the context of serving their owners?
The bell system is also a colonization of cats, who must overcome “natural instinct” in order to “act human.” Only then are cats permitted to join public life. They must assimilate and agree to a human creed that is not their own in order to be allowed to do chores without human supervision.
What, then, of the cats with no bells? Are they confined to their homes? Are they able to communicate with the outside world effectively when they need help?
In truth, do the cats have any representation in local, prefectural, or national government? Who speaks for the cats? Why can’t cats just be cats in public?
At the end of the day, cats are nothing more than props for humans, even in a world where they are seemingly treated so well. They are a model minority. Whereas cats should be afforded the freedom to be a part of a society that relies on them for labor and cultural capital, they are instead commodified and sold only when convenient and otherwise suppressed and deprived of their own “cat-ness.”
This is fundamentally what capitalism does. It appropriates and exploits for the benefit of those in power and also serves to further suppress those it abuses. That the Nekopara series presents this as an idyllic world suggests, at best, that capitalist and colonialist ideology is so deeply ingrained in most people’s consciousnesses that nobody working on the series even considered how exploitative and oppressive its “nekonomic” system actually is.
Given Sayori’s request that we “not think too much,” it’s likely the parallels between the cats in Nekopara and culturally appropriated minorities in the real world was completely accidental—but that doesn’t mean those parallels don’t exist or aren’t worth talking about. And, just like real-world minorities whose cultures are exploited as aesthetic and who are themselves economically exploited as cheap sources of labor, the cats of Nekopara deserve better.
They should have a right to self-determination. They are welcome to stay devoted to their employers out of love and loyalty, but that should be on personal terms, not under government mandate. They should have the unrestricted opportunity to take part in everyday life and be free from confinement and codependency.
Cats are living beings and, in the Nekopara world, they are sentient beings who deserve freedom and a right to develop and learn about themselves independently of what the ruling class (humanity) may dictate as convenient. By elevating the status of cats, we can end their exploitation. And only once cats are afforded the same rights as humans can we truly achieve Nekopara.
Now say it with me.
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