Gideon Lewis-Kraus got paid to go to Japan and pet cats (hell yes I am jealous) and reading his Wired report is very soothing:
… The Internet’s preference for cats runs so deep that when Google’s secretive X Lab showed a string of 10 million YouTube images to a neural network of 16,000 computer processors for machine learning, the first thing the network did was invent the concept of a cat. America might have inflated the Internet-feline bubble—the Cheezburger Network raised $30 million last year in venture funding, and the Bible has been translated into Lolcat—but Japan was where the Internet-feline market began, and persists, as a quiet, domestic cattage industry. If you want to know why the Internet chose cats, you must go to Japan.
Lest I unfairly ratchet up your collective expectations: I will never get to pet Maru, and neither will you. Maru’s supervisory documentarian is named Mugumogu, but beyond that fact, hardly anything is known about her… I commence months of fruitlessly obsequious email courtship with Mugumogu but ultimately to no avail.
All of this reticence is infuriating. In America people post a video of themselves whistling “Free Bird” in a tutu and they’re heartbroken if they’re not immediately invited on The View. It’s different in Japan, though. There, they haven’t yet cottoned to the idea that the whole point of the Internet is not only that it might make you famous and universally loved but that it might make you famous and universally loved overnight, and for no real reason, and that then it would give you fairly precise metrics for just how famous and loved you were, and for how long. For the Japanese, the Internet is primarily not about self-promotion and exposure but about restraint and anonymity…
YouTube has told me that Hideo Saito and Manaho Mori—the custodians, managers, promoters, and chief can openers of the Musashis, once one of the most important cat bands on the Internet—would be delighted for me to visit them and interview their cats, but that it would be best if I brought along a translator. My friend Rebecca, who loves cats but lives in a Tokyo apartment building that does not allow pets, is happy to oblige. She is not, however, without concern…
Hideo, as it turns out, speaks about his cats in calm, measured, elegant English. (He spent some of his childhood in England and the US.) “I started writing songs for cats because I’d gotten bored writing songs for humans. But the thing is, cats have limited vocal … limited vocal—”
“Limited vocal range?” Rebecca suggests.
“Yes, limited vocal range. I found I needed five cats to cover one octave.” We are sitting around an oblong dining room table in the sun-drenched cedar den of a ski chalet in a central Nagano prefecture, along with six cats spanning a spectrum of liveliness that runs from contemptuously drowsy to asleep. Manaho, Hideo’s wife and business partner, holds one on her lap, face out and totally blasè as it regards us. Hideo is trained as a musician and sound engineer and looks the part, with variable-tint eyeglass lenses (the panels now shaded graphite from the ambient snow glare), a retiring studio voice, a scruffy suggestion of goatee, and a relaxed-bemused ’70s mien. Manaho describes herself as a voice coach and producer.
Four of the cats are Norwegian forest cats. They’re huge, lustrous, woolly, like a sheepdog made into a pillow. Their coats have a glossy weft of lunar rainbow. According to a thinly sourced but entirely plausible Wikipedia squib, Norse legends refer to a skogkatt, a “mountain-dwelling fairy cat with an ability to climb sheer rock faces that other cats could not manage.” That’s apparently this cat’s pedigree; he is directly descended from myth. On the way up into the mountains, before I lost data service on my phone, Manaho friended me on Facebook, then sent me a photograph of Musashi hovering over snow. Rebecca worried I was bringing her to meet a bobcat. Hideo and Manaho’s teenage son, who is about to leave Japan to study animals at a university in Tasmania, hands me Musashi after I sit down. He holds Musashi out to me like a muff of fraying fog. Musashi makes no noise; he is sandbag-limp. The cat is 8 years old and weighs almost 20 pounds, his fur the ur-slate of celestial cinder. My chair bends back beneath his heft. He goes back to sleep as soon as the fuss of brief stir is complete, clucking and grumbling in his resumed dreams. He is the biggest cat I’ve ever seen. I hold him to me. I love him…
Apart from self-soothing with cat videos, what’s on the agenda as we start another