Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the more unpredictable and unusual manga creators out there. Past titles like Tikkonkinkreet and Ping Pong suggest his ideas are outliers in manga canon. They don't have the usual codified cute faces or awkward teen dramas of many series. Cats of the Louvre might be his most unexpected story yet.
Paris and the Louvre are central to the story. The Louvre is more than just a museum, it's a repository of Art, Culture and History, not just of France, but of personal stories as well. Cecile Garnier is a tour guide slightly unsatisfied with her job. One day, while showing off the Mona Lisa, she spots a little white cat among the tourists listening intently to her lecture. Then just as quickly, it disappears. The cat, Snowbébé, is six years old but still looks like a kitten. It's one of a dwindling group of cats that have been secretly living in the museum's attic for generations. Only the aging security guard Marcel knows about them and quietly feeds them every night. He lets new hire Patrick in on the secret, and the younger guard dutifully joins him in taking care of the cats.
Snowbébé stands apart from the other cats. He's six years old but still looks like a kitten, like he stopped growing and maturing while young. He dreamily wanders the museum in search of the painting whose voice calls out to him. Marcel, now in his 70s, desperately wants to solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance in the museum when they were children. He believes she disappeared into one of the paintings, but which one? Snowbébé might be searching for the same painting whose voice beckons to him. Cecile agrees to help find the painting, which means facing her own abandoned past as a promising art student.
A Meditation on the Power of Art and Escape
The story has a dreamy, woozy rhythm as it takes its time setting up its world and characters. To watch thing slowly unwind is not unlike taking a leisurely stroll around the Louvre itself. Matsumoto researched the Louvre and the art there extensively to create an immersive experience. You feel immersed in the mysterious world of the museum as you read. The surreal and melancholic atmosphere permeates the story like a mist. When the cats are on their own, they see each other as human-like community of various French archetypes. The humans see them as cats.
Cecile and Snowbébé represent different sides of those who are transported by the power of Art. Snowbébé has fallen under the spell of the magic painting to the point where he stays trapped in childhood like Marcel's sister Arietta. Both she and the cat literally get lost in Art. Snowbébé's dreamy detachment threatens to expose the cats and cause them to get thrown out on the street. Sawtooth, a black cat, decides to kill him to save them all, but things don't go as planned.
The most interesting part of this magical realist fairytale is that it doesn't feel like a Japanese comic at all. It feels like a French story with a very French sense of wistfulness. That's a mark of how deeply Matsumoto immersed himself in the world of Paris, the Louvre and its characters. The emotions and themes are universal. Matsumoto has created an elegant tale of grief, acceptance and the transformative power of Art.
Cats of the Louvre is another lavish hardcover from Viz Media that's now available in bookstores.