In Search of the Heart of the Online Cat-Industrial Complex
A cat wearing a short tie plays music on a cat-shaped keyboard (” Pancake Meowsic Video ,” 185,459 opinions ). A woman performs sun salutations with a cat on her back (” Cat Loves Yoga ,” 1,539 views ). A man slaps two cats on an ironing board to the beat of “Atmosphere” (” Cat Slap Joy Division ,” 357,605 opinions; watch this one ).( Now, I entail .) Kittens try to keep up with an accelerating treadmill (” Treadmill Kittens ,” 3.4 million views ). A fat cat walks on an underwater treadmill (” Fat Cat Walking on Underwater Treadmill ,” 133,434 positions ). Two cats cuff at a treadmill in puzzled inquisition (” Cats Try to Understand Treadmill ,” 1.9 million views ). Search YouTube for” cat treadmill” and see how many results there are. Or, actually, don’t.
Writing that paragraph took more than an hour. To continue the catalog for a page would’ve taken weeks. But if one has set out to say something definitive about the relationship between cats and the Internet, it’s important not to be delayed indefinitely by Internet cats.
The obvious place to begin an inquiry into the Internet cat is with
Maru, the most famous feline on the Internet. Maru’s shtick, in brief: Maru gets into a box (“,” 8.1 million views ). Maru gets into a box (“. A box and Maru 8 ,” 3.1 million views ). Maru gets into some boxes (“. Many too small boxes and Maru ,” 7.9 million views ). Maru tries to get into a box (“. The box which Maru can’t enter ,” 2.2 million views ).
Maru, which entails “circle” or “perfection” in Japanese, is a Scottish fold with nonfolded ears. He is 5 years old and lives in an undisclosed Japanese city that is, by consensual rumor, almost certainly not Tokyo, because no indoor cat in Tokyo has that much space to jump into boxes, especially not “the worlds biggest” ones. Maru has upwards of 168 million YouTube views and, according to other rumors, has generated enough ad revenue to buy his owned a new apartment. His is the seventh-most-subscribed YouTube channel in Japan.
But Maru is just one of Japan’s famous Internet cats, and his reign will not last forever. Japan is also home to child-tortured Mao; to
Shironeko( aka Basket Cat aka White Basket Cat aka Zen Cat ), the cat who serenely closes his eyes no matter what is stacked atop his head; to Cute Overload’s beloved Persian, Winston-san, who sometimes appears propped on pillows before plates of untouched gyoza; to the enormous Papi-chan, a Norwegian forest cat of considerable bulk and endurer of the Internet’s first extensively featured cat diet.
There’s also the famous flying-Pop-Tart cat, of course,
Nyan Cat; his tie to Japan remains obscure unless you’ve been made aware, by someone who knows something about Japan and cats, that nya is how Japanese cats say ” meow .” Some of Japan’s most interesting cat activity originally appeared on Tv, but by the time we’ve been exposed to the game show that turns cats into weight lifters by putting increasingly heavy fish onto scales, or the variety show in which a phalanx of kittens is invited to nest in a patch of cooking pots( a fad called neko-nabe ), we’re considering them on the Internet, posting them to Facebook, emailing the links to our mamas and yoga teachers.
The Internet’s preference for cats operates so deep that when Google’s secretive X Lab proved 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 bubblethe
Cheezburger Network raised $30 million last year in venture funding, and the Bible has been translated into Lolcatbut 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.
est 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. When I write Maru’s US book publicistyou read that rightit turns out that she knows no more than you or I. The publicist loops in Maru’s US book editor, who offers to pass along some interview questions to Mugumogu’s Japanese agent, who could have them translated, answered, and sent back. But I have no questions for the human being called Mugumogu. My interest lies altogether with the cat. I write back to the US editor in my most professional tone, the one in which I don’t sound like somebody who watches cat videos all day, and say that for its main purpose I need to meet Maru IRL. I am willing to sign an IRL NDA. I promise I won’t write a word about Mugumogu herself. I just want 20 or 30 minutes with that cat.
A few days later the publicist writes back: Impossible. I’m welcome to write to the Japanese agent, she says, but I should know that not even the agent knows who Mugumogu is; her correspondence all goes through Maru’s Japanese publisher, a certain Okumura-san, of Tokimeki Publishing, a boutique attire are engaged in Internet cat nya-alls and coffee table festivities of Korean soap opera. I begin 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 phase of the Internet is not only that it might stimulate you famous and universally loved but that it might stimulate 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.
To help me understand this introversionand also in the hope of build contact with some famous Internet catsI enlist the assistance of David Marx. An American living in Tokyo, Marx writes a very intelligent, popular blog called Nojaponisme, which I’d stumbled upon in my cat-related forays. In a particularly interesting post, Marx offers three reasons for the Japanese cult of online anonymity. The first, which he deems silly, is the fear that offenders or cons humen might use personal information to harm an unwary Internet user. The second one, the fear that colleagues or bosses might detect personal details that could be problematic at work, he connects to the Japanese culture milieu, where” any sort of questionable hobby automatically qualifies as a’ secret double life.'” The third reasonfear that anonymous mobs might bash anyone who tried to stand out too aggressively onlinehe considers totally legitimate,” in that the Internet in Japan so far has been almost exclusively about anonymous rabbles stimulating trouble for individuals and industry .”( He notes that he once had his own photo posted on a Japanese board called Suspicious Foreigners .) I write Marx a fan email and ask if his theories might apply to the question of why the Internet chose cats. He responds right away. Not only has he written about Japanese media trends, he works at YouTube. We Skype.
” Japan was relatively late to getting on the Internet ,” he says,” and still lags behind in some manner. But with cat stuff they were always leaderswith cats as their conduits. Suppose about it .” I should be considered it. I’ve been doing very few but think about it.” Most of the named cats on the Internet are Japanese ,” he find. It’s an excellent phase: Those cats on treadmills and cats on yoga mats and cats being slapped to a Joy Division soundtrack, anonymous grimalkins all. But your Marus, your Maos, and your Shironekosall of them are in Japan.
Marx’s interest in cats lies in his work with the YouTube Partner Program, or YPP, services that are attains it possible to turn on ads to monetize your content, as the phrase has it. The bargain is that the content has to be your own; you can’t only post G’n’R anthems and then rake in ad fund to pay for your brownstone renovation. Either you’re invited by the YouTube people because of your pageviews or you are able to opt in. Once you’ve joined, they help you with your marketing. They take you through the ad alternatives( flags versus prerolls, etc .) and provide tools and tips-off for constructing successful videos. They’ve got representatives assigned to aid certain classes of partners with the marketing of their monetized videos: some who work with comedians, some who work with musicians, and quite a few who work with cats. Marx says he’ll email several new star cats, up-and-coming cats, and see what he can do. He says that just a few years ago the cat people tended to be as reclusive as Mugumogu, but that the newer cat folks seem more amenable to disclose themselves.
A few weeks later, he emails me back: Sure enough, he has some famous cats willing to meet. I fly to Japan to fulfill the Musashis.
ouTube has told me that Hideo Saito and Manaho Morithe guardians, directors, promoters, and chief can openers of the Musashis, once one of the most important cat bands on the Internetwould be delighted for me to visit them and interview their cats, but that it “wouldve been” 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 proud to oblige. She is not, however, without concern.
” These people have five cats ,” she says.” And those cats are in a band, and they are best known for a Christmas song, and they live in a remote resort town at the top of a mountain, and they have invited you, a foreigner, to come to their home to meet their famous Internet cats. I promise you they are going to be weird people .” She asks me how many homes I think she’s been in, in her 10 years on and off in Japan. I can’t begin to guess. She holds up one hand; she can count the number on it.
Hideo, as it turns out, speaks about his cats in soothe, measured, elegant English.( He expended some of his childhood in England and the US .)” I started writing anthems for cats because I’d gotten borne writing anthems for humans. But the thing is, cats have limited vocal … limited vocal”
” Limited vocal range ?” Rebecca suggests.
” Yes, restriction vocal range. I discovered 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 entirely blas9 as it considers us. Hideo is trained as a musician and sound engineer and appears the portion, with variable-tint eyeglass lenses( the panels now shaded graphite from the ambient snowfall glare ), a retire studio voice, a scruffy suggestion of goatee, and a relaxed-bemused’ 70 s mien. Manaho describes herself as a voice coach-and-four and producer.
” So I attained the Christmas song. I took voice samples from the cats. I had to bribe them with food. They’re a quiet breed, these cats. They don’t make much noise .”
Four of the cats are Norwegian wood cats. They’re huge, lustrous, woolly, like a sheepdog constructed into a pillow. Their coats have a glossy weft of lunar rainbow. According to a thinly sourced but wholly plausible Wikipedia squib, Norse legends refer to a skogkatt, a” mountain-dwelling fairy cat with an ability to climbings sheer stone faces that other cats could not manage .” That’s apparently this cat’s pedigree; he is directly descended from myth. On the route 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 fretted I was bringing her to satisfy 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 growling in his resumed dreams. He is the biggest cat I’ve ever seen. I hold him to me. I love him.
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Neither Hideo nor Manaho were cat people, originally. She grew up in Tokyo with four big puppies. He lived abroad and had no pets. The first cats that adopted them were two strays, Ginny( now deceased) and Seri. But everything changed when they took in another stray, severely injured, called Marble, a black cat marbled with rust. He, they discovered, had a voice suitable for sampling.