Translated and Sourced From Ansei Zakki, Gegege no Kitaro DVD Magazine, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources
Part Cat / Part Human, the Neko Musume are interesting and unique creatures in Japan’s pantheon. A different animal altogether from the shape-changing bakeneko, Neko Musume are mixed-race children that show both traits of their parentage.
What Does Neko Musume Mean?
The kanji for Neko Musume is (almost) completely straight forward. 猫 (neko; cat) + 娘 (musume; daughter). Right there in the name you can see that Neko Musume are the daughters of cats.
The only twist is that the term “musume” can just as easily refer to young girls as daughters. Like many familiar titles in Japanese, they distinguish both age and blood ties. This usage is not as common in modern Japanese, but was much more common during the Edo period from whence the Neko Musume sprang.
Misemono Neko Musume
No photos exist of the original Neko Musume, but this is a similarly exhibited girl known as the Bear Daughter, from this site
Of all of Japan’s yokai, the Neko Musume might have the oddest beginning. The term can be traced back to a particular exhibit at a particular Misemono Show in Asakusa during the 1700s.
Misemono Shows (Seeing Things) were popular from the Horyoku to the Meiwa era (1751-1771). Simply put, they were a combination of American freak shows and “Believe it or Not” exhibitions. Skilled crafters presented yokai artifacts like kappa mummies and oni skulls, along with historical relics and strange artifacts. The original “Fiji Mermaid” exhibited by P.T. Barnum was a product of these shows. There were also sideshow performers like jugglers, acrobats, and fire eaters. And then there were the human “misemono,” often people born with birth defects who were exhibited under outrageous names and with fictional backstories.
One of these was the Neko Musume, exhibited in Asakusa during this time. Reaching a height of popularity around 1769, nothing is known about the true identity of this original Neko Musume. There are no known pictures. Accounts state that her appearance was remarkable—she looked exactly like the human/cat hybrid she claimed to be. Whether this was simply an uncanny appearance, the result of birth defects, clever prosthetics and make-up, or some combination of them all is not known. But the Neko Musume was a popular and startling attraction at her booth in Asakusa.
Another photo of the Bear Daughter from this site
With the fading of the Misemono Shows in the 1780s, the Neko Musume disappeared from history—at least for a while.
Edo Period Neko Musume
Neko Musume appeared a few short decades later, in 1800 when the kaidan collection Ehon Sayoshigure (絵本小夜時雨; Picture Book of a Gentle Rain on a Late Autumn Evening) was published. One of the stories in the collection was called Ashu no Kijo (阿州の奇女; The Strange Woman of Ashu). It told the tale of the household of a rich merchant, who had a daughter with a strange habit of licking things. Her tongue was rough like a cats. Rumors arose as to the nature of her parentage, and she was given the nickname of Neko Musume. The same story was told later in 1830 in the satirical Kyoka Hyakki Yakyo (狂歌百鬼夜興; Poems of the Night Parade of 100 Demons) but instead of Neko Musume the girl with the strange habit was called Name Onna (舐め女; Licking Girl).
Another Edo period publication called Ansei Zakki (安政雑記; Miscellaneous Notes on Ansei) has a story of a Neko Musume. This one is particularly noteworthy, as the Ansei Zakki was not a kaidan collection but a diary collecting interesting political and historical facts of the time. The following is presented as a true story.
The Story of the Cat Daughter (From Miscellaneous Notes on Ansei)
In the 3rd year of Kae (1850) in the Ushigome district of Yokotera machi (modern day Shinjuku, Tokyo) there lived a mentally disabled girl named Matsu. Ever since she was a child, she had the strange habit of dragging the discarded heads and guts of fish from the garbage and eating them. She was exceedingly nimble, and would scurry along the hedges and walkways like a cat, trapping mice and eating them.
Because of her cat-like nature, she gathered nicknames like Neko Kozo (猫小僧; Cat Kid) and Neko Bozu (猫坊主; Cat Priest). Many speculated on her nature, wondering if she was suffering for some deeds in her past life, or if the essence of a cat had mingled with her own life essence as a baby resulting in this remarkable girl.
Her mother worried about her eccentric behavior and summoned doctors and prayed to gods to help her daughter. None could find the cause or cure. At her wits end, she tried to beat the cat out of her daughter, but to no avail. All hope lost, her mother shaved her daughters head and sent her to be a nun, hoping to expunge whatever past sin had made her a monster. But this didn’t help a bit. The cat daughter still sucked the organs of fish and continued her eccentric behavior. She was expelled from the nunnery and sent back home.
Matsu was relentlessly bullied by the other children in her neighborhood. The children chased after her, but because she was nimble as a cat she would escape by flying over the rooftops. No one could touch her. And she was popular amongst the adults for clearing out any rat infestations and keeping the neighborhood clean. Eventually, her mother saw the value in her strange daughter and started renting her out as a rat catcher to her neighbors. For a sen, the cat daughter would crawl under their houses or into their garbage piles and feast on all of the rats.
Showa Period Neko Musume
In 1936, Neko Musume was revived by Shigeo Urata, one of the pioneers of kamishibai (paper theater) storytelling. Kamishibai was a popular pre-war entertainment, where itinerant storytellers wandered from town to town delivering chapters of the latest adventures of popular characters. Urata’s version of the Neko Musume took the form of a Buddhist morality story—a tale of karmic cause-and-effect. In his story, there is a father whose occupation is making cat-skin shamisen. His soul bears the weight of all the cats that he has killed, and his daughter is born as a strange cat/human hybrid. Her eyes are bright and sharp and her ears are pointed and stand up on her head. Like the other Neko Musume, she chases and eats mice, scampers across the roof like a cat, and even speaks in a cat’s voice.
The Neko Musume story was popular enough to spawn imitators like the Tokage Musume (トカゲ娘; Lizard Daughter) and the Hebi Musume (蛇娘; Snake Daughter). With these later characters the Buddhist moral lesson was lost, and they became just cheap entertainment. In 1937, the police began to censor kamishibai performers under the Public Morals law. The popular Neko Musume character was targeted as the origin of these girl/animal hybrid stories.
Manga Neko Musume
Shigeru Mizuki started his career working as an illustrator and writer for kamishibai, and worked on several of these original series including Neko Musume and the early incarnation of Hakaba Kitaro. In the post-war period, kamishibai struggled to survive as an art form and eventually gave way to mass-market printing and the emerging manga industry. When Mizuki moved from kamishibai to creating his own series for the fledgling kashihon (rental manga) market, he brought several characters with him.
His 1958 kashihon version of Neko Musume followed the kamishibai tales, portraying Neko Musume as a horror character in the series Kaiki Neko Musume (怪奇猫娘; Bizarre Tales of the Cat Daughter). The half human / half cat girl named Midori was cursed. Her father had killed a giant black cat, and the cat’s curse fell upon the man’s daughter causing her to be born as a monster. Like Kitaro himself, this version of Neko Musume crawled out of her mother’s tomb, as her mother had died while pregnant.
In the early 1960s Mizuki started to have some success with his version of Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro). He introduced a prototype of Neko Musume—a cute girl named Neko (寝子; Sleeping Child) that Kitaro met at a singing completion. Her cat-like, half-yokai nature is revealed later. This was her only appearance in that series.
In the mid-1960s, Mizuki was hired by Shonen Magazine to produce a more child-friendly version of his horror comic Hakaba Kitaro. In the first series of his re-branded Gegege no Kitaro, Mizuki introduced Neko Musume into the series. She was not a main character from the start; she first appeared in a story called Nezumi Otoko vs. Neko Musume (猫娘とねずみ男). Kitaro brings her in for the sole reason of antagonizing the rat-like Nezumi Otoko and revealing his schemes.
When Gegege no Kitaro moved to Weekly Shonen Sunday in the 1970s, Neko Musume joined the regular cast in the role of Kitaro’s girlfriend. He name was changed again, this time to Nekoko (猫子; Cat Girl) and she was given a more yokai-like appearance than her previous incarnations. As an interesting contrast, this version wasf not a yokai, but a human with a strange disease that transformed her into a cat whenever she saw fish or mice.
Anime Neko Musume
Image from this site
Neko Musume appeared sporadically in the original Kitaro animated series, and didn’t become a regular character until the second series. She was called Neko Musume, instead of the Nekoko of the comics. Her personality was quite different, however. She even joined Nezumi Otoko on his money-making schemes.
It wasn’t until the 1980s Gegege no Kitaro anime that the modern version of Neko Musume was born. This animation took all the different versions of Neko Musume and made her into a single character, the half-yokai / half- human cat girl. Again was in the role as Kitaro’s sometimes girlfriend, her appearance was also mostly fixed at this time. She appeared in the familiar white blouse, red dress, and red hair ribbon. That is the Neko Musume that most of the world knows today.
Neko Musume character from Mizuki Shigeru Road
This was a fun journey, because everyone loves Neko Musume even if they don’t know much about her. Few people realize that she has roots beyond Mizuki Shigeru and his beloved comic Gegege no Kitaro, and that the Neko Musume is a legitimate yokai in her own right and not some version of the bakeneko.
I have often been asked why the Kitaro comics translated into English don’t have Neko Musume, and the truth is that she just doesn’t appear in the comics all that often. It often works that animation has different needs from comics, and just as Bluto is only a minor character in the original Popeye comics, Neko Musume is a minor character in Gegege no Kitaro. Her popularity in the cartoon eventually broadened her role in the comic, but she was never a main character like Nezumi Otoko or Medama Oyaji.
And of course, Jim Zub and Steve Cummings created their own modern, updated version of the Neko Musume in the yokai comic Wayward Volume 1: String Theory, that I write the back-up essays and Yokai Files for.
I’ve been waiting for Ayane’s true nature to be revealed in issue #8 before posting this history of the Neko Musume. Personally, I think the girl from Ansei Zakk and Ayane would have gotten along just fine.