Rachael is a passionate long-time anime fan, who enjoys writing about the storytelling aspect of anime, manga, and light novels.
Ah, the cat girl. A staple of naughty harem series. And, other than the tsundere, no character type comes close to being as much a symbol for anime itself. Cat girls are a common character type, although they usually show up in light-hearted, comedic series. This is probably because they're used in "cute girl" roles, their cat ears are just one of many traits making them look cute and child-like. But it's always cool to see a cat girl who isn't this stereotype, who is taken seriously, is competent and intelligent, like Felix/Ferris from Re: Zero.
Origin and History
Early anime and manga were heavily inspired by early American cartoons, starting around the 1930s-50s. Inspirations for anime and manga included Disney's animal-people, also known as funny animal, furry, or anthro cartoon characters; like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Felix the Cat, Popeye, and Betty Boop were also part of the early inspiration for anime.
Japanese people have always had a fondness for cats, so combine the loving of cats with the desire to make original cartoon characters similar to the most popular American ones, and bam. You get Japan making and popularizing cat-like cartoon characters pretty early in anime history.
According to Wikipedia:
"The portrayal of cat-girls goes back until at least 1924 when Kenji Miyazawa (Japanese author of children's literature in the early Shōwa period of Japan) created 水仙月の四日 (The 4th of narcissus month) where the first "Modern Day" Nekomimi Cat girl appears as 雪婆んご in the story, a beautiful, cat-eared woman. The first anime titled The King’s Tail (Osama no Shippo) involving cat-girls was made in 1949 by Mitsuyo Seo." - Wikipedia, 'Catgirl'
Since then, a cat girl (called nekomimi or 'cat ears' in Japanese) or occasionally a cat boy, has been a major character in many popular anime. Some anime, like Tokyo Mew Mew and Loveless, only have characters with cat (or other animal) ears. Hello Kitty, also known as Kitty White, can also be seen as a nekomimi character, rather than an actual cat.
Why Are Cat Girls Appealing?
Some argue that the cat girl in Japanese culture is similar to the Playboy bunny in Western culture. Meaning, in visual language, it uses an animal associated with attractive, feminine qualities to enhance the erotic appeal of a fictional character. Or real-life women wearing costumes.
But a cat girl is usually shown as carefree, naive, and innocent. Her overall look is usually cute, rather than sexy. She embodies that uniquely Japanese concept of moé: a specific set of cute traits, in both appearance and personality, common to especially young, female anime characters. Adding the characteristics associated with cats: bells, collars, playfulness, ears and tail, cuteness, etc., enhances a character's moé appeal. This aesthetic is more innocent, and less explicitly sexual than the Playboy bunny.
There are a variety of character types that can double as cat boys or cat girls. You can have a dere-dere cat, a tsundere cat, etc., but they're most often in the role of 'magical girlfriend' or 'manic pixie dream girl'. In other words, they're usually fun, wild, and girlish. A cat girl's cat ears and tail can often give away her emotions. Anime is big on emotional expressiveness, and cat ears and tails are another tool the artists can use to show a character's emotions.
Prominent Cat Girl Anime Characters
Cat people are in too many anime to possibly list. In fact, it might be easier to list anime without at least one cat-eared character!
Anime featuring numerous cat-eared characters include Cat Planet Cuties, DiGi Charat, Tokyo Mew Mew, and Loveless.
Anime characters with cat ears can be classified by whether or not they can shape-shift. Some are cats turned human, rather than humans turned cats.
Kyo in Fruits Basket, for example, is cursed to turn into a cat when hugged by someone of the opposite sex.
Everyone briefly turns into cats (for no apparent reason) in a particular later arc in Hetalia.
Many anime girls wear pointy bows that resemble cat-ears. It's usually a sign that the character will have aloof or finicky characteristics of a cat. For example, Asuka in Evangelion always wears her red plug suit hair clips, which can either be said to resemble cat ears or devil horns.Rin Toshaka, a famous example of a tsundere in Fate/ Stay Night, has pointy, cat ear like ribbons.
Variations and Sub-Types
The catgirl + trap. A 'trap' is anime fan speak for a convincing male-to-female cross dresser. The idea being that it's a 'trap' for a straight male to become infatuated with such a character, because they are technically biologically male. Many of these are catgirls, perhaps in an effort to add to their femininity, making it more shocking/humorous when their biological nature is revealed.
The catgirl + maid. This type embodies the moé of both catgirls and maids. Fetishized French maid outfits are as common in anime as fetishized cat ears, so it only makes sense that they will sometimes be combined in one character.
Other animal ears. Common ones include bunnies and foxes. Spice and Wolf's Holo is technically a wolf goddess, but in her human form, she has ears and a tail resembling those of a fox. Fox-people are less common in anime, but show up pretty regularly, since Japanese culture also has an affinity with the fox. Fox spirits are highly regarded in Japan's native animistic religion of Shinto. Fox people in anime and manga are often associated with Japanese traditional culture. They often exemplify traditional, elegant beauty, as opposed to the cutesy nature of most cat people in anime.
Differences Between Cat Girls and Furries?
A "furry" character refers to any animal or animal-like character with some human characteristics, usually this includes bipedal locomotion, human intelligence, and the ability to speak.These are not unique to anime, as anthropomorphized talking animals are common in children's entertainment, but furry character also show up in shows for adults, like Bojack Horseman.
In contrast to a furry character, a cat girl, or boy, is mostly human, with few animal-like characteristics, usually just the ears and tail. A cat girl could be fully human, wearing cat ears as a costume, or a magical girl who transforms into a cat girl.
Also, a key difference is origin. While there is a lot of crossover, furries originated in American cartoons, and cat girls originated in Japanese anime. Now, with the internet, and huge amounts of cultural exchange between East and West, neither phenomenon is restricted to its country of origin. But the difference in origin shows some cultural differences between Japan and America. Catwoman in Western comics shows that cat-like attributes are sometimes used in the West to sexualize women, similarly to the Playboy bunny outfit. In Asian media, the cat-like traits are played for cuteness, an innocent, youthful kind of cuteness, which East Asian media is obsessed with. So, you can usually expect to see the "cat like character" trope being used very differently depending on whether the design originated in East Asian or Western media.
The phenomenon of cat girls is about how humans view animals, but also how we decide certain traits are attractive or desirable in women and girls. There's a long history of associating feminine traits with cats. This symbolic association can sometimes see women as mature and empowered, such as with Catwoman, but it can also infantilize women and girls. There is also a phenomenon of 'cat girl traps', where a cross-dressing or feminine male enhances his femininity with cat ears. This leads us to ask, what is it about cats that we associate with femininity and therefore feminine attractiveness?
Here's my list of overlapping traits associated with both cats and women:
- Big eyes
- High-pitched voice
- Graceful movement
- Alternate between aloofness and affection (like a tsundere)
- Association with shadows/night (this association is played up with Catwoman)
- Association with magic - this dates back to the Ancient Egyptian religion, all the way to the modern association between witches and black cats or cats as familiars
Storytelling relies on metaphors and similes, on comparing things that share traits. Something new is created from the association. So in anime and manga, a cat girl is born out of the association with stereotypical feminine traits and traits associated with cats. Since a lot of anime is about creating a "dream girl" for the audience, or several, it explains the common use of this trope. But, hopefully in the future, we will see cat girl characters who break down or play with traditional tropes associated with the character type.
Further Reading & Sources
- Cat Girl - TV Tropes
The Cat Girl trope as used in popular culture. A Catgirl is a character that looks mostly like a human but she has some parts like a cat, usually the ears, …
- Catgirl - Wikipedia
- Nekomimi in Anime: Top 10 Anime Cat Girls - MyAnimeList.net
While the majority of the internet chooses to adore cats as is, the anime industry believes it better to combine them with cute humans, turning fantasy into reality. Come learn more about the origin and meaning of the term nekomimi... while also cudd
Questions & Answers
Question: Why do cats and wolves have a better chance of making it into a story than dogs, sheep and others?
Answer: I'm not sure why they are the most common type of anthropomorphic characters. I know that Japanese culture reveres the wolf and fox as Shinto spirits traditionally. They do have and like dogs, but are more likely to own cats. The 'maneki neko' story associates cats with luck. So you see a lot of wolf, fox, and cat anthros in Japanese media. There are a lot more dogs in American media (such as Disney movies) because Americans like dogs so much. It's probably just a cultural preference for certain animals. Could also be geographic, you need a lot of space for dogs, cats are better suited to small, urban apartments - like most people have in Japan. There are less anthro farm animals because I think so few people live outside of cities as much now compared to like 100 years ago, in either the U.S. or Japan. They had anthro sheep in 'Catherine', a Japanese anime-style video game, because of a joke on the association of counting sheep = sleep. These were terrifying. I'd like a show about more of a variety of anthro animals that are cute. We got Squid Girl? Lol. Cats, cats, cats, with the occasional wolf or fox.
© 2018 Rachael Lefler
Nigel Kirk from Calgary, AB, CAN on November 14, 2018:
I named my oldest cat after Nao, a cat/catgirl from the Koi Neko manga.