What You Need to Know About Anime Cat-Girls

Updated on November 19, 2018
RachaelLefler profile image

Rachael is a passionate long-time anime fan, who enjoys writing about the storytelling aspect of anime, manga, and light novels.

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Ah, the cat girl. A staple of naughty harem series, and other than the tsundere, perhaps no character type comes as close to being a symbol for anime itself. Cat girls are a common character type, although they usually show up in light-hearted, comedic series. Thank you Felix from Re:Zero for breaking that particular mold.

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.[2] 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 catgirl (called nekomimi or 'cat ears' in Japanese) or occassionally a cat boy, has been a major character in many popular anime. Some anime, like Tokyo Mew Mew and Loveless, revolve around characters with cat ears. Hello Kitty, also known as Kitty White, can also be seen as a nekomimi character, rather than an actual cat.


Why Are Catgirls Appealing?

From 'Soul Eater'.
From 'Soul Eater'.

Some argue that the catgirl in Japanese culture is similar to the Playboy bunny in Western culture, using an animal associated with attractive, feminine qualities to enhance the erotic appeal of a fictional character or real-life woman wearing a costume. But a catgirl is usually shown as carefree, naive, and innocent. She embodies that uniquely Japanese concept of moé, which refers to a specific set of cute traits, in both appearance and personality, common to especially young and female anime characters. Adding the characteristics associated with cats (bells, collars, playfulness, ears and tail, cuteness) enhances a character's moé appeal, which is more innocent and less explicitly sexual than the Playboy bunny.

There are a variety of character types that can also be 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' type. In other words, they're usually fun, wild, and girlish. A catgirl's cat ears and tail can often give away her emotions. Anime is big on emotional expressiveness.

Prominent Catgirl Anime Characters

From 'Acchi Kocchi'
From 'Acchi Kocchi'

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 also cats turned human, rather than humans turned cats.

Kyo in Fruits Basket is cursed to turn into a cat when hugged by someone of the opposite sex.

Everyone briefly turns into cats 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.

Variations and Sub-Types

From 'Show By Rock!!'
From 'Show By Rock!!'

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 Catgirls and Furries?

A "furry" character refers to any animal character with some human-like characteristics, usually this includes bipedal locomotion, human intelligence, and the ability to speak. In contrast, a catgirl or boy is mostly human, with few animal-like characteristics, usually just the ears and tail. A catgirl could be fully human, wearing cat ears as a costume, or a magical girl who transforms into a catgirl as her transformation.

Also, a key difference is origin. While there is a lot of crossover, furries originated in American cartoons, and catgirls 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 is something East Asian media is obsessed with.

Conclusion

From 'Cat Planet Cuties'
From 'Cat Planet Cuties'

In studying the phenomenon of catgirls, we're discussing not only how humans view animals, but how we decide that 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 'catgirl 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?

The following are my list of cat-woman overlapping traits:

  • Big eyes
  • High-pitched voice
  • Smallness
  • Cuddliness
  • Graceful movement
  • Alternate between aloofness and affection (like a tsundere)
  • Mysteriousness
  • 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 catgirl is born out of the association with stereotypical feminine traits and traits associated with cats.

Questions & Answers

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      • Bubblegum Senpai profile image

        Nigel Kirk 

        12 months ago from Calgary, AB, CAN

        I named my oldest cat after Nao, a cat/catgirl from the Koi Neko manga.

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