If you can't get enough of Cats, neither can Japan!
If you are capable of breathing and have an internet connection, then you’ve probably heard about the new, heavily computer animated movie based off Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical Cats. The show itself is loosely based off T.S Eliot's book, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, here’s all you need to know: Cats is a show about a strange clan of felines singing and dancing for the opportunity to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer,” where they go to be reborn. It’s about life, death, memory, and lots of unresolved sexual tension. Whatever happens next depends on how much hip thrusting, skin-tight suits, and fur you prefer in your musicals. And Japan absolutely adores it!
Since 1983, the Shiki Theatre Company has been performing their version of Cats to Japanese audiences. Cats was first adapted by late Shiki founder Keita Asari, who has adapted other major musicals such as The Lion King and Jesus Christ Superstar for Japanese audiences. And like all adaptations of musicals, each theatre company brings its own unique flavor to the songs, costumes, characters, and stage. However, Cats in Japan is different—although it was based on the original 1981 London production, it still has made plenty of changes for the sake of localization and artistic sensibilities.
Shiki cast at the Imado Shrine during a promotional photoshoot
The Shiki production recently celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2018, and as of this year a brand new Cats-dedicated theatre was built in Tokyo. With about 10,000 performances of Cats under its belt, the Shiki production is one of the longest running international adaptations out there. Which for a show as popular as Cats, is no small feat. This April, the current Tokyo Cats cast even took a trip to the famous Imado Shrine (home of the “beckoning cat" statue) for a promotional photoshoot. In the business, we like to call this "peak aesthetic."
In the Cats lore, there are no main characters, but instead a large ensemble cast. Some productions use up to 33 named cats, however the current Shiki production uses about 25 characters. The most notable difference is the lack of Alonzo in the Shiki cast, a very visible role that is typically reserved for the principal male dancer. In the original London casting calls, Alonzo is described as a black and white cat who is a “very good dancer” and the “ensemble baritone”; however, in Japan, he’s typically replaced by two very different characters: the Japan-only Gilbert and the odd bird Rumpus Cat.
Rumpus Cat in the Tokyo 2018 production
While Gilbert was an all-new addition based off a siamese cat and alternate designs for Alonzo, Rumpus Cat already existed. In fact, Rumpus Cat might have well been the strangest choice for the Shiki production—Rumpus typically only appears for one major number in most productions, and amateur productions tend to skip it altogether. Rumpus is clearly based off Superman and American super hero characters, making him probably the most garish of the entire cast. However, in the current Tokyo production Rumpus resembles a Final Fantasy character I might've drawn in high school with his strange hair and red visor. This version is both a weird yet still respectful adaptation of the original John Napier costume design. It's silly, but it works.
Musical theatre in Japan has always been a big deal. Organizations such as the Takarazuka Revue have been putting on productions since 1914, many of which have been adapted from Western works. While these shows do include dance numbers, they’re nothing compared to Cats. What makes Cats unique is its intensity—as a sung-through show with heavy emphasis on dancing, this makes putting on professional productions incredibly demanding. All this action is compounded by the fact that actors are dressed tight outfits with ears, tails, and coats of fur. The amount of costumes required for Cats has naturally led to the Shiki production developing an individual aesthetic, with plenty of new designs introduced over the years.
Shiki Theatre Company Rum Tum Tugger (left) and Napier's original design (right)
Let’s take a look at Rum Tum Tugger here. Compared to the original 1981 Napier design (right), the Shiki version of Tugger (left) is missing half a pant leg, has prominent cheetah-shaped spots, bigger furry cuffs, and a posse of fangirls. Strangely enough, his design was altered for the 1996 Tokyo production, exchanging the black and tan coat and fur for all white. That of course was eventually swapped for the original Shiki design, and hasn't changed much since. And that’s just the fur. For makeup, the Shiki production has experimented with both full and partial face paint, which might remind some of the stage makeup worn by Kabuki actors. Except if they were all, you know, funky cat people.
So what’s the big deal about Cats in Japan? Ever since its debut, Cats alum have moved on to all facets of the Japanese entertainment industry. For example, in the original 1983 production, Shintarō Sonooka played Munkustrap, and later on went to do voice-over for Yu-Gi-Oh! and Kingdom Hearts. Another Cats alum, Masachika Ichimura, who played Rum Tum Tugger, is most well-known for his role of Mewtwo in Pokémon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back. Two epic feline roles for one actor—a purrsonal record maybe. Akiko Kuno, the first to play Grizabella and perform “Memory” on stage in Japan, also has credits in the Sakura Wars franchise. The current Tokyo-based production of Cats even includes special merchandise like mystery charms, just in case anyone was planning their Cats themed ita-bag any time soon.
Collect them all!
Cute merchandise tie-ins aside, Japanese localization is never easy. Much like any piece of entertainment that needs to be re-written with a different audience in mind, Cats has been twisted and played with dozens of times. However, despite the many iterations, Cats in Japan is a testament of how even high-concept ideas don’t need to be radically re-imagined to get their point, nor their charm across.
Cats will always be near and dear to my heart no matter what shape it takes. However, as a fan of the show’s colorful look, I can’t help but fall in love with the Shiki production. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Japan has always been obsessed with cats both in popular culture and the fine arts. Whether it be the Nemuri Neko statue sculpted by Hidari Jingoro, or Hello Kitty, cats have historically been celebrated for their aloofness and cuteness. Cats has a universal appeal that isn’t going anywhere any time soon—and the Shiki production of Cats is still breathing fresh life into a show relishing in its albeit weird, but iconic personality.
Do you love Cats? Have you ever seen any musicals in Japan? Let us know in the comments!
Blake Planty is a writer who loves his cat. He likes old mecha anime, computer games, books, and black coffee. His twitter is @_dispossessed. He also just launched a new, free newsletter called Boy Toy Box, where you can hear all about the fictional boys he loves to hate and hates to love.