It’s not often that an unknown Japanese writer publishing their first book in the UK hits the bestseller lists. In fact, it’s not often that any Japanese writer (other than Murakami) does. And yet Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat has become one of the must-have Christmas books of the year. Thousands of people will be waking up to find it in their stockings on Christmas morning. So what has it done right?
The first time I noticed The Guest Cat I was walking past Hatchards in Piccadilly and my eye was caught by a big display of the books in the window. It was that picture that did it – the cat with the pricked-up ears looking straight out at you, the lower part of its face hidden as though it was peering over a wall. It was charming and distinctly Japanese. I was tempted to buy the book just for the picture, regardless of what it was about. And I’m willing to bet a lot of other people felt the same.
The book is actually a good Christmas read. A heartwarming tale of life and love and a stray cat that saves a marriage, it has a Zen-like calm and a message that tells us to stop and appreciate the beauty of the natural world around us. It won the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award in Japan. So far so good – but what I wanted to know was, where did the picture on the cover come from?
The answer is, it’s by Tsuguharu Foujita (or Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, as he later called himself), a Japanese artist who lived and worked in Paris in the early twentieth century where he painted many pictures of cats, often self portraits with a cat peering up at him from his shoulder.
Foujita (originally Fujita but he preferred the French spelling) was an interesting person to say the least. He moved to Paris when he was twenty four and quickly became friends with Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and many other artists.
His pictures of women, often nudes, and cats were wildly popular. He married three times, moved to Latin America, where 60,000 people visited his exhibition in Buenos Aires, and in 1933 went back to Japan and became an official war artist in China. After the war he went back to France and converted to Catholicism. He died in Switzerland in 1968.
Incidentally, here’s the cover of the Japanese edition for comparison – completely different, and not one for the Christmas book market.