You are probably familiar with the charming Asian Lucky Cats, waving at you at from festival booths, storefronts and restaurants. I love to see these cheerful little statues and have a tiny pink cat and kitten set on my desk at work. Today's three stories give us varied explanations of the origin of these small bringers of happiness and good fortune.
Wendy Henrichs' author's note in I Am Tama, Lucky Cat, explains that the Maneki Neko or Beckoning Cat legend probably began more than 350 years ago during Japan's early Edo period. Her version of the story refers to the Goutoku-ji Temple near Tokyo where hundreds of cats are buried, and a gravestone and shrine honor Tama, the original beckoning cat. The figurines traditionally are white, black and orange, after Tama, but now come in many color combinations.
Henrich's Lucky Cat, Tama, is a Japanese bobtail kitty who tells us its own story. At first a stray, the cat is taken in by a poor monk. They stay together in an aging temple, and although the monk has little, his first thoughts are to provide more comfort for the temple's worshippers and his little cat. One day, during a thunderstorm, a samurai warlord seeks shelter under a cherry tree, and he is surprised to be beckoned away by the monk's feline companion. By doing so, Tama saves the samurai from disaster and improves the lives of the monk, the worshippers, the warlord, his family and herself!
Yoshiko Jaeggi's watercolor illustrations are done in the most realistic style of the three titles. Her primarily neutral palette is punctuated by brighter splashes of color, such as Tama's red collar, the pink blossoms of the cherry tree and the kimonos of the temple visitors. Readers will enjoy peaceful scenes such as snow falling on the temple and the mountains, the monk and Tama watching carp swim in a pond confettied with plum petals and the inside of the Buddhist temple with a slightly leaky roof. I especially like the sweetly blushing Tama raising her paw to greet temple worshippers. These serene subjects provide contrast to the drama of the storm, in which Jaeggi has painted the menacing Raijin, god of thunder and the lightning demon, Raiju doing their worst.
The Beckoning Cat : Based on a Japanese Folktale by Koko Nishizuka, Illus. by Rosanne Litzinger
The Beckoning Cat tells the story of a boy named Yohei who works hard to take care of his ailing father. To do so he must sell fish door-to-door, and use the money to buy medicine. He is limited in his business, because he can only carry two barrels of fish at a time.
One night a white cat shows up at Yohei's door, shivering in the rain. He lets her in, warms her up, and gives her food from his own plate. When his father becomes too ill to be left at home alone, Yohei has fish that may spoil and no means of selling them... until his white cat, with a wave of her paw, begins inviting customers to their home .Yohei's family prospers. Naturally, people begin to make porcelain cats like Yohei's for good luck, putting them in their shop windows to welcome their own customers.
Litzinger's accompanying art is done in watercolor, colored pencil, ink and gouache, and is softly washed with color. Much in this folktale world is pleasingly rounded, from the kitty's ears and paws, to the catches of the day, to the blue flowers that bob into some of the pictures. Readers will enjoy the final picture of the Lucky Cat, seemingly waving goodbye.
The Tale of the Lucky Cat Retold & Illus by Sunny Seki
The saddest of the retellings is The Tale of the Lucky Cat . In this version, the struggling toymaker Tokuzo sees a cat get trampled by a speeding horse. He takes the kitty home to nurse it and names it Tama. Unfortunately, sweet Tama dies while Tokuzo is out peddling his toys. But when Tokuzo finds himself in danger, Tama reappears and saves his life. To honor Tama and share his good luck with other people, Tokuzo decides to create a statue of his cat. He teams up with the sickly Old Master Craftsman and his talented daughter and soon everyone's lives are bettered. The statues became popular all over Japan, and, Seki explains, eventually people believed that the raised right paw on the Maneki Neko statue brings fortune, and the raised left paw brings happiness and good luck.
The copy that I read is in both English and Chinese, and includes a small glossary of the Japanese words used in the story. The book is also available in bilingual editions with English paired with either Arabic, Japanese, Hmong, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog or Vietnamese.
Seki's book has stylized and expressive illustrations and he has worked in some comedy, such as when Tokuzo begins to make cat statues, but his failed efforts look more like pigs, rabbits and teddy bears instead. He uses color to enhance the moods of the story. When Tokuzo takes Tama home and splints her (his?) leg, the two smile together, and green and orange mixture of morning light pours over them, but when the cat dies, the scene is done in black, blue and a bruised looking green. Even the candle flame is grey, and the room is shadowy.
I liked all three versions of the Lucky Cat figures origins.Seek them out at your local library!