Picture book author Sakai Komako is known for titles such as ‘Kuma to Yamaneko’ (Bear and WIldcat) and ‘Hanna-chan ga Mewo Samashitara’ (When Hanna Woke Up). These works depict animals and the world of children with a unique sensibility. Sakai lives with Mitsu and Koto, a pair of beautiful grey Russian Blues. We asked her about how she met these cats and what they’ve added to her life.
Beautiful Grey Cats
– How did you encounter Mitsu and Koto?
“I always wanted to have a cat. As soon as I moved into this house, I started to look for a grey cat. I came upon a breeder in the Shikoku area who brought the four-month old Mitsu to me. About two years later, I heard Mitsu’s mom had kittens again, so that’s when Koto came to live with us.”
– Why were you so fascinated with grey cats?
“There is a novel by Yoshiyuki Rie titled ‘Chiisana Kifujin’ (Small Lady). It contains a story about a grey cat. I like both the story and the color grey, so I guess that’s why. But now that I think back, I guess any cat that I might have encountered would have been fine.”
– What was it like to actually start living with cats?
“When I was a child, we had a dog. However, my parents took care of it mostly. So this is really my first experience to live so closely with an animal. I was initially so amazed by how tidy and smart they are. Cats become housebroken very quickly. They come up to me in order to communicate – mainly conveying messages about food, the toilet and playing. Cats are such smart animals in the way that they can take care of themselves! Mitsu never goofed around when she was little, but as she grew up, she became more conscious about her territory. If there’s something that doesn’t seem reasonable to her, she will start punching and use a threatening voice. Sometimes when she sees a stray cat outside the window, she will start punching and take it out on me! (laughs) I didn’t understand at first why she was attacking me, but I guess that’s her nature. She forgets about it after she’s calmed down.”
– So Mitsu is kind of a goof ball?
“She is actually very responsible. She doesn’t chum up with Koto so much. However, for example, when I try to apply eyedrops to Koto, Mitsu will come running out to see what Koto is crying about. Or sometimes, when I am crying after having a fight with my family, she will come up to me and meow just to say, ‘What’s wrong?’ Mitsu must think that she’s responsible for everyone’s well-being.”
– Did Mitsu change after Koto arrived?
“When Koto came into our house for the first time, Mitsu looked a little heartbroken to me. I was thinking they would be friends right away, but after Mitsu saw Koto sitting on her favorite pillow, she didn’t even enter the room for about two months. But now they are closer – close enough to play tag together.”
– What kind of character does Koto have?
“She is still childish and very much spoiled. When she first came to live with us, Koto was very quiet and still. So we took her to the vet and were told that she had a tooth-related disease. We treated her with a medication, but she then became unable to eat on her own. We ended up making her go through a major operation – all her teeth were pulled out. I couldn’t tell whether or not it was the right thing to do, but she was suffering. After recovering from the operation, Koto became a much more active cat. Cats don’t understand why they have to go to the vet, even if the purpose is to heal them. I was worried that I was putting too much stress on her. However, the results have been good. In addition to being much more active, Koto now eats a lot.”
– What kind of relationship do you have with your two cats?
“For Koto, I know I’m her mother. For Mitsu, I was her mother at first. However, as we went along the hierarchy started to change and we eventually became equals, then friends. Recently she’s become more haughty, kind of acting like she’s my older sister. Mitsu, myself, then Koto – it seems like that’s the pecking order. Mitsu and I protect Koto together. Whenever there’s an earthquake, Mitsu and I glance at each other then we start looking for Koto right away.”
When Cats Touch Us
– What’s the best thing about living with cats?
“I know they are cats, but quite often I feel as if I am living with people. Until I lived with cats, I felt alone at home when my family was away at work. But now that I have cats, I feel more comfortable. I can’t measure the importance of their existence to me. Everybody says that pets are like part of the family, and I definitely agree. If you live together, they really do become family members.”
– In your picture book ‘Bear and Wildcat’, the theme seems to be loss. Since cats don’t live as long as humans, we often think about what the future will bring.
“I can’t help but feel uneasy when I think about what will happen when the cats are no longer with me. It’s scary to think about the sense of loss I will suffer when I lose them. I mean, I sleep and eat with them every day. I’ve never experienced something like that. It gives me the shivers when I think about it from time to time.”
– Is there anything you pay a lot of attention to when you draw cats?
“Last year, I published a book titled ‘When Hanna Woke Up’. A cat appears in it. The thing I wanted to depict the most was the part where the cat takes a pee. Cats put on this serious face, a kind of philosophical look when they go to the bathroom, don’t they? That’s what I wanted to depict. Moreover, I wanted to express the beauty of a cat’s shape – like when a cat is stretching. Russian Blues are especially beautiful. But it doesn’t matter what kind – once you have a cat, all cats, even ugly strays will start looking pretty to you. I guess that’s something that changed in me after I started living with cats. At the moment, no animal lives closer to me than a cat. Even when I draw other animals, cats are there as the standard animal form. They are the starting point for my imagination.”
– What most attracts you to cats?
“Maybe it’s how cats are so different from me. They are way smarter than me. Cats and humans are different species. Yet, when people are feeling sad, cats will come close to us. They will take care of smaller animals. Every time I see videos of cats taking care of babies on YouTube, I am amazed by how gentle and smart they are. Once, when I took a half-stray cat to the vet, he got all excited while he was being treated and tried to bite my hand. However, he quickly realized his mistake and stopped. He looked sincerely sorry. I was like, ‘what a gentleman are you!’ They don’t act on their feelings alone, but they do care about others. When I get to come in contact with these human-like qualities in cats, I get such a strange feeling. It’s as if I just witnessed a very beautiful moment.”