Actress and well-known cat-lover Shigeru Muroi has written essays featuring cats such as ‘Marking Blues‘ and ‘Nyanchatte Manga Heibon King’. She currently lives with 5 cats – Koro-san, Kin-chan, Shiro-san, Tama-san and the orange tabby, Chibi-san. Because Chibi is used to the camera, she poses with panache and provides us with a performance by opening cabinet doors. We covered the lives of Ms. Muroi’s cats – which receive no shortage of love from her.
The Cute Kitten who Came to the Muroi Home
ーHave you had cats since you were a child?
“Cats really scared me when I was a child. Because it was the countryside, most of the cats were stray. One of the stray cats in my neighborhood was called Tama. It would linger around wherever I was. You can even see Tama in all of the photos taken of me during my childhood. Because I was so scared of cats, I’m crying in all of the pictures (laughs). We kept small pets such as parakeets and goldfish, but I didn’t like cats. For that matter, I wouldn’t touch dogs either.”
ーAround when did you begin to take an interest cats?
“I received a kitten after coming to Tokyo, during my third year of college. By this time, I was no longer a child and cats didn’t scare me. I thought the kitten, which I named Mya-mya, was really cute. This was my start. Even though I doted on it, Mya-mya died in about 1 year. I was really shocked. The tough realization that animals die kept me from getting another pet for awhile. I first encountered Chibi at my previous house. For 3 days, I heard some meowing outside. I thought it was just a stray cat. However, it’s voice gradually became weaker and weaker – it sounded like it was calling out for help. So, when I went out to check on it, I found a kitten walking back and forth. Because it looked hungry, I gave it some milk. Maybe because it was nervous, it looked really drowsy until it suddenly perked up and opened its eyes. I thought this was just so adorable… But I was so busy I felt that there was no way I could take it in. So I took it with me to the studio hoping I could find someone to keep it. A member of the production staff said ‘I’ll keep it.’ However, during the 3 days I waited for them to take me up on the offer, Chibi cast a spell on me, and I was unable to let him go. He became my cat.”
—I see. So taking in Chibi was an involuntary act.
“Because I was so busy, I thought it might be impossible at first. However, the woman who was the president of my office happened to be a cat lover. She told me that she had long had the habit of taking in stray cats. When I told this woman that I probably couldn’t be both an actress and cat owner, she replied to me, ‘Maybe you should quit being an actress’. That’s how much she loved cats (laughs). When I finally made the decision to keep Chibi, she cried with tears of joy. Once Chibi began living with me, my life took a 180 degree turn. I stopped going out drinking and began to fall asleep more easily.”
—What kind of character does Chibi have?
“He is really clever. When I first took Chibi in, I would often take him with me to the studio, so he doesn’t have a fear of strangers. During filming, when Chibi encounters a beautiful actress, he angles his head and tries to give them a kiss (laughs). He’s smart enough to know how to open cabinet doors by himself. That’s why the sliding doors at our house have vertical openings. It also seems that he likes taking baths. He’ll come in with me and start swimming. After having only Chibi for a while, I took in 5 stray cats. At this time, Chibi became sick. The poor thing had a urethral stone. While he was being treated, I also had him neutered. If he had lived with other cats since he was a kitten, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem. However, all of them coming to live with us at once probably caused him a lot of stress. Now, it’s not a problem at all – all the cats sleep together.”
Taking in Injured Cats
—How did you come to take in the other cats?
“After living with Chibi, I became interested in other cats. Sometimes I would see this cat that had a bleeding leg. I thought it would be nice to help it out by taking it to the vet. However, it ran away from me. So I began to leave food for it outside of our house. About 13 cats from around the neighborhood then gathered outside my house. I was finally able to take the injured cat to the vet. A friend of one of the nurses there decided to take the cat in. Over time, I discovered that there were a number of cats in the neighborhood that were missing legs. I thought that somebody must be torturing them with traps, so I consulted with volunteer groups and people at the city hall about making a pamphlet in order to catch the person doing it. I went around the neighborhood and put the pamphlets in peoples’ mailboxes. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch who was doing it. So I began to feel mercy for the cats. I considered what I should do if more cats came to have their legs amputated. I simply couldn’t let them stay outside! But there was no way I could take in all 13 cats, so I looked for people to take in the healthier kittens. I took in the remaining 3 cats – Long, Koro and Kin-chan. After a while, one of the neighbors said they could no longer keep the sisters Shiro and Tama due to financial reasons. At first they just came over to my place to eat, but I eventually took them both in.”
—Though you now have 5 cats, at one time you lived with 6?
“A long-haired cat named ‘Long’ died of diabetes. For 5 years, Long received insulin shots. In human terms, that’s about 20 years of treatment… Though the cat originally weighed 10 kilograms, it was down to about 2 kilograms when it eventually died – though it always had a good appetite. In fact, on the day before Long passed away, he enjoyed a delicious meal of tuna. I live together with a man, but he can’t give insulin shots because of his clumsiness. Moreover, because Long had a limited diet, I had to take the cat to the veterinary clinic to stay whenever I worked on location for a long period of time. Whenever I took Long home from the hospital, I would wrap him in this scarf. I sensed that he kind of enjoyed his time away. The other 5 cats were Japanese ‘wanekos’, but I think that Long was probably only about a quarter Japanese. Blood from overseas flowed through his veins. Because he was so handsome, Long looked really good in this kind of fashion. Over those 5 years, he received a lot of scarves. Being strays, the other cats hated it when things were put around their necks. Only Long didn’t mind. During the 6 months before he passed away, Long became really skinny. So we would dress him in Western-style clothing in order to keep him warm.”
— Tell me about the personalities of your other cats.
“Koro-chan just loves me to death. If we have no visitors, he will follow me around all day – like poop on a goldfish. He has a one-track mind – ‘I love Shigeru’ (laughs). Koro has a great personality. He doesn’t get angry even when the other cats steal his dinner. When Long was going through treatment, Koro would lick him for comfort. He has the friendliest character of all my cats. Kin-chan, being a girl, is temperamental and a little shy. However, loud noises don’t scare her – she’s quite courageous. Shiro is missing one of his back legs. For the first 6 months after I took him in, he wouldn’t have anything at all to do with me. However, that changed. Once, when I was in the process of feeding the cats, I felt a cat on my back. When I realized it was Shiro, I began to cry. Gradually, the distance between us closed. This made me really happy. Now we’re to the point where we can share the same bed. Tama is always protecting her sister, Shiro. The two are inseparable.”
—Do the cats fight with each other?
“Because they are from the same area, they don’t fight much. However, when I was recently clipping Kin-chan’s nails, she kind of freaked out. Chibi misunderstood and thought that Kin-chan was attacking me, so he slapped Kin-chan. He then jumped on Kin-chan’s back and tried to bite her. I had to plead to Chibi, ‘Kin-chan didn’t do anything! I was just cutting her nails.’ This settled him down. It seems that Chibi was just trying to protect me – he probably thinks that he is like my husband or father (laughs).”
A Life that Revolves around Cats!?
—Have you devised any contraptions for the cats in your home?
“We used to have a kind of glass fence in the vaulted ceiling. Once, when Chibi was walking on the glass fence, he began to slip and fall – but I was able to catch him. So I replaced it with a bamboo covering. So they can freely get into the bedroom even when the door is closed, we built a cat door. Our toilet has become a shelf for cat-related books. Whenever something happens, I can run in there and find a book about cat illnesses. Because they go out into the garden when they wake up in the morning, we built a sandbox for them to use as a litter box. Because they were all stray cats, they are quite comfortable outside in the dirt. They like to catch bugs in the garden.”
—Are they picky about food?
“Only Chibi likes to eat separately from the other four. Basically, I place 4 dishes and water bowls out for them. Regarding food, I don’t want them dependent on a set kind. If a brand suddenly becomes unavailable, they might become sick. So, I gradually mix several different kinds of cat food for them so that they will be able to adjust. When Long was going through treatment, I learned that cats still have to eat during emergencies, so I always keep high-protein foods and tube-based nutrition paste on hand. I’m always checking on the favorite foods of each cat. It is commonly said that the best way to prevent hair balls is through chemicals in food. However, I grow cat grass in my garden that originally comes from the wild. It seems that the natural grass is better than the stuff you buy at the store.”
—Do they have any favorite toys?
“Because they all love the scratching post, I got a second one. We also have all the normal toys for cats – such as cat towers and cat-teasers. Chibi likes the shiitake mushrooms from Toyama Prefecture. They are like catnip to her – she will sniff at them for hours. They also loved small toys shaped like mice. I used throw them and they would dash off and retrieve them. However, as they got older, they no longer believed that the toys were real mice – so they recently stopped showing interest in them (laughs).”
—Do you collect cat-related items?
“I have somehow found myself building up quite a collection. Among the things that I treasure is a painting of a cat by the French painter known as ‘Fini’. It looks a lot like Long. Another picture that I treasure is an illustration of Chibi that Yoshifumi Hasegawa drew for my book titled ‘Shige-chan‘. Because I like the illustrations of Takashi Kuge, I had him sign my bag. I even have a tile of one of his illustrations in the laundry room. In the bathroom, I have also installed tiles on which I painted the images of Tama, Chibi and Long. The windows are fit with iron bars in the shape of cats… I guess we have cat-related items all over the house.”
The Deep Relationship between Cats and People
—In essays and books, you write about living with cats. How did this begin?
“When you have a baby, you naturally become interested in taking pictures of it. In the same way, even though I had absolutely no interest in photography, I gradually wanted to take pictures of my cats (laughs). In this way, I began to want to produce a book of photographs. So I planned and published ‘Chibi No Omiai‘. The book garnered Chibi a lot of attention from the media. Though he was generally well-behaved during the photo-sessions, there was one time that Chibi kind of freaked out and refused to be photographed. It was right around when he turned 1. I sensed that he had kind of reached his limit, so I never took him to the studio again. However, he actually likes to have his picture taken. Today he looks really confident and happy because for the first time in a long while a professional photographer is taking his picture (laughs). Since I took in Chibi and the other cats, I have become friends with a lot of cat owners. In particular, I have many friends that are either single or elderly women. Because those kinds of people have deep relationships with their cats, I became more interested in people-cat relationships than people-people relationships. This is why I wrote ‘Marking Blues‘.”
—What is attractive to you about human-cat relationships?
“A person’s relationship with their cat is extremely personal. Even though we live together, my relationship with the cats is different than that of the man of the house. Moreover, even my closest friends can’t fully understand the relationship I share with my cat. It’s the kind of relationship that can’t be expressed in words. However, this kind of deep relationship doesn’t need to be understood by other people. I believe that even death won’t keep me from forgetting it. Regarding Long, our relationship became so deep after he became ill. Giving him insulin shots every morning and evening, I lived with his condition always in my mind. I began to feel like his special protector. Because he was a cat, he understood this. Understanding the significance of the treatment, he would willingly raise his butt in order to let me give him the insulin shots. Because I was the one delivering the shots, I began to feel like his body was my own. Though it has been two years since he passed away, I sometimes see his apparition. I still have 5 other cats, so it’s not as if I no longer have pets. Yet, I still feel lonely without him. There was only one Long. These kinds of feelings might seem sentimental and foolish to another person. But they don’t need to be understood by other people. It’s only between me and the cat. I think that anyone who has ever had a cat has felt things like this to at least some degree.”
【The Cats of the Muroi Household】Photograph: Shigeru Muroi