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I'M NOT AFRAID OF DEATH
Nekojiru had attempted to commit suicide in the past.
Like my wife Saki, Nekojiru was a proud woman with her own view of the world.
Saki was a left-hemisphere type: logical and thoughtful. Nekojiru was a right-hemisphere type: temperamental and turbulent. It was like she could see things other people couldn't. We may have gotten along because we were both right-hemisphere types with a schizophrenic streak.
Nekojiru's husband, Hajime Yamano, on the other hand, is level-headed, sensible, cool.
It comes as more of a surprise that someone like Yamano could have created the sort of deranged manga he has.
The creator of the more recent version of the manga, "Nekojiru y", is in fact none other than Yamano.
Yamano uses this name when he draws manga using Nekojiru's characters. Nekojiru y's manga may look like Nekojiru's manga on the surface, but underneath it's a world apart.
Nekojiru often got depressed and spent her time holed up in her room playing Final Fantasy.
I don't play video games, but I once played a fighting game with Nekojiru and she tore me to shreds. She laughed when she saw me getting irritated because I couldn't figure out the controls: "You're getting all mad!"
What caused Nekojiru to become closed in on herself?
I've given the question a lot of thought, and the best answer I can come up with is that it must have happened when she was living with her family. By the time I met her she was already completely shut off from the outside world.
Nekojiru was seeing a psychiatrist. She had been diagnosed as manic-depressive.
I remember her saying on several occasions, "I'm not afraid of death."
Near the end of the publishing bubble, between 1992 and 1994, sales were still pretty good. I had it easy, putting together books for fun, getting royalties on the sales, and then in turn using the royalties to have more fun.
Nekojiru was still free to work at her own pace, so there was a relaxed atmosphere about her work.
We got together more often to have fun than we did to discuss work. She never seemed depressed when she was with me, but she may have just been hiding it.
Things were going well and everybody was still alive, so it was a relatively happy time for us.
Listening to our favorite music, having a bit of fun with drugs every once in a while, chatting about everything and nothing... time flew by.
Around this time, dreams of making it big may even have taken root in Nekojiru.
Buoyed on the waves of the publishing bubble, Aoyama had his own small but intensely devoted following, and in a sense was the most successful of us all.
But there would come a time when Nekojiru would sell more books than even she could ever have imagined.
And that was the beginning of the end for Nekojiru.
Suddenly in the mid-90s, Nekojiru's popularity took off.
The nation was swept by Nekojiru fever. The epithet abunakawaii was coined to describe the special appeal of her work: Cute + dangerous.
The simple forms of the characters must have been a big factor in the sudden popularity. I also believe that to a large extent her work was accepted only because of its naive, childish drawing style.
Abunakawaii. The perfect word to describe Nekojiru's manga.
It's particularly apt for the early works, with their innocent cruelty. Nekojiru herself even fit the bill, with her unfeigned innocence.
From one moment to the next, Nekojiru was a star. Gone were the days when we could spend all night chatting and listening to music.
Saki and I had married by that time, and Nekojiru and Yamano were so busy they didn't even have time to sleep.
With the sudden popularity came the need to produce her manga in large quantities, and that was something that was not in Nekojiru's character.
It now became a battle with deadline after deadline, and eventually she became overworked.
Work came no longer just from Garo but from Tokyo Electric Co. and everywhere inbetween. Asking someone to mass-produce what were essentially personal whimsies thrown off for fun was misguided and inherently impossible, but she managed to do it anyway. No doubt this was partly Nekojiru's attempt to ingratiate herself with the big magazines.
Neither Nekojiru nor Yamano could turn down work. They accepted everything that came. After years of scraping by, the logic of poverty had led them to the conclusion that it was wrong to turn down work. I remember thinking they should be a little more selective about the offers they accepted.
When we speak of the manga artist "Nekojiru", in fact we're referring to two people: Nekojiru herself, of course, but also her husband and collaborator, Hajime Yamano. You could summarize the situation by saying that the ideas of the right-brained Nekojiru were arranged in dramatic form by the left-brained Yamano.
For the most part, the stories are based on dreams or things actually seen by Nekojiru. When things seem a little too strange for reality, it's probably because they're based on one of her dreams.
The line between reality and dreams seemed blurred in Nekojiru's mind. This special way of seeing things is behind the unique version of the world in her stories.
The encounters with strange people in her stories were a mix of reality and fiction. Yamano surely helped to mold Nekojiru's ideas into concrete form, but the division of labor is not at all clear. Their collaboration consisted of the delicate tightrope act of translating the fragile madness of Nekojiru's ideas into a concrete form that anybody could understand. Like siamese twins, there's no way of saying where Nekojiru ends and Yamano begins. In every story by Nekojiru there's always more or less Yamano mixed in.
But some stories do seem more purely Nekojiru. I think it's fair to say that her unpaid early work for Garo or for me - the work collected in books like Nekojiru Udon and Jirujiru Nikki - is high proof Nekojiru. Here it's obvious she was coming up with the stories quite freely.
On the other hand, you can sense that Yamano must have done the great burden of the work in the stories that they started having to churn out in large quantities only a short time later. With new publishers came new restrictions, and the stories had to meet those restrictions. It gets particularly striking with serials like Neko no Kamisama, where it's clear how far they've had to go to accomodate the major publishers. The more they had to do so, the more effort Yamano had to make, so the more his style came to the fore.
Stories like Invisible, written by Yamano based on the dream notes left behind by Nekojiru after her suicide, are clearly more Yamano than Nekojiru. Though identical on the surface, Nekojiru and Nekojiru y are not the same. It's as if, shorn of his siamese twin after the death of Nekojiru, Yamano had continued to publish under the name of the half-entity Nekojiru y.
Reading the collection of early works that is Nekojiru Udon could very easily become a traumatic experience for a delicate soul.
Two cat siblings go around randomly killing whatever rubs them the wrong way. Whatever they dislike, they kill. The cuteness of the cats lures us into accepting their casual cruelty. It's an outlook that seems to bespeak at the very least an ounce of self-hatred, if not outright hatred of the entire human race.
Whenever Nekojiru was talked about in the press, she was usually described in terms something like these: "A mangaka with a cult following for her manga featuring cute cat characters commiting casual acts of cruelty." Casual acts of cruelty. If you think about it, it begins to seem like a despaired expression of resignation in the face of death; as if she were saying to people, "We're all going to die anyway."
Suddenly the public goes crazy for Nekojiru's work because it's abunakawaii. Short of reducing her work to such a simplistic formula, how else could hundreds of thousands of people suddenly have wanted to associate themselves with a story with such a dangerous message? Rather than relating to Nekojiru's message of "We all die", clearly most people were simply reacting to the powerful aura emitted by her simply drawn characters. In the end that was the element that gained her a broad readership.
All of Nekojiru's early work has a the same uniquely "trippy" feeling. You could almost call it psychotic. I liked to refer to these early works as "Natural acid".
In a sense it feels like Nekojiru used her stories to play family. I don't know anything about her family, but she didn't give the impression of being a family person. It seems probable that the family in her stories wasn't based on her own family, but was a sort of ideal family that Nekojiru wished she could have had.
In all probability, the character Nyako was her, and the character Nyasuo was Yamano. Nekojiru did have a real younger brother, but it seems unlikely that Nyatta was based on him.
Nekojiru Kenbunroku (Nekojiru Travelogue), included in Nekojiru Shokudo (Nekojiru Diner), has Nekojiru travelling to various places and giving her impressions. In typical Nekojiru fashion, wherever she goes, she says it sucks. But the editors really do only send her to places that suck. It's like they're doing it deliberately to get her to say bad things.
Did they really think Nekojiru would enjoy going to a popular theme park?
Jirujiru Ryokoki - Indo Hen (Jirujiru Travelogue - India) more effectively channels Nekojiru's unique viewpoint onto a real situation, and is perhaps her most accessible book. It's a book I'm very fond of because it bursts with the romance of travel. She also drew an account of her experience of tasting banglassi (yogurt with cannabis) while in India.
The real Nekojiru comes through in her late book Jirujiru Nikki (Jirujiru Diary).
Many of the pages depict things supposedly seen by Nekojiru in her daily life, such as a woman shitting in the middle of the road. Sometimes you have to wonder if she really saw all of those things.
Perhaps they were things only Nekojiru could see.
THE LIQUID ROOM
On February 1, 1997, Nekojiru and I went to see Aphex Twin live in concert.
My memory of the event is as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
It was at the Liquid Room in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. The room was packed to the brim. There wasn't even room to move.
DJ Cylob was the opening band. I asked Nekojiru what she thought of the music.
"It sucks. Hurry up and get off the stage."
Unusually for the club, about a third of the audience was sitting on the ground. Nekojiru pushed and shoved her way to the front of the stage to be near the DJ booth. Little old Nekojiru was practically tackling these big guys, pushing them out of her way. Though small and frail, she could muster tremendous power when driven.
Finally Cylob left the DJ booth. Two songs from Mike (μ-sik) & Ritchie's album started playing on the speakers. Richard was on.
It's hard to say whether Aphex Twin's music is for dancing or for listening. The dance floor was split about evently between people dancing and sitting. There may even have been more sitting. Nekojiru was moving her body to the rhythm in the first row. Her eyes never left the DJ booth for a moment.
Richard, on the other hand, stood hunched over the turntable the whole time. His long hair fell down and covered his face during the entire performance. Fuck the audience, he seemed to be saying.
Two teddy bears were duking it out behind Richard throughout the show, a photo of Richard's face taped over their faces.
After about an hour Richard abruptly left the stage. Nekojiru immediately left her spot and walked over to where Yamano and I were sitting near the back of the room.
"I've had enough. Let's go."
The party was supposed to go all night, but Nekojiru wasn't interested in the other DJs.
"How was Richard?" I asked.
"I couldn't see his face the whole time, but it was nice. I liked the teddy bears."
Nekojiru was always like that - short sentences, to the point. She could sound curt if you didn't know her, but she was actually the emotional type. Coming from her, a comment like that meant something like, "OMG, it was so fucking amazing I almost wet myself!"
In other words, she had fun.
During the last few years of her life, Nekojiru's workload had increased to the point that she was really and truly overworked.
By this time it was no longer about drawing for fun; it was about making the deadline no matter what.
In books like Jirujiru Nikki and Neko Kamisama, Nekojiru often simply transcribed stories she'd heard from other people.
"I deleted a whole book's worth of data from my PC," I lamented to Nekojiru once. Later the story turned up, word for word, in Nekojiru's manga.
I once sent a part-timer to go on a company outing in my place because I was too busy, and as an omiyage he brought me a plastic pouch of dried seaweed - the regular kind you can find at corner stores everywhere, to sprinkle on breakfast, with five individually wrapped portions inside(!). That story also found its way into her manga, word for word.
Overworked, Nekojiru had run out of ideas. But she had deadlines to meet, and did the best she could manage. She had a strong sense of responsibility, and always found a way to come through in the end. More than once she found herself cornered by several deadlines and had to push herself to the brink of collapse to finish everything.
Once I was at my office late at night and I heard a knock on the door.
"Can I sleep here tonight?" an emaciated and exhausted-looking Yamano inquired.
Yamano hesitated. Apparently Nekojiru had attacked him with a boxcutter in a fit of rage.
I had Yamano lie down on the couch and brought him a glass of water.
It was hard to break the awkward silence.
The phone rang. I picked it up. It was Nekojiru.
"I knew he'd be over there. Put Yasuo on the phone!" Yasuo was Yamano's real name.
"I can't. He's sleeping right now."
I tried to calm her down, but nothing worked. "Put Yasuo on the phone right now! He ran out on me, so go wake him up and put him on the phone!" She was furious. Her nerves were completely shot.
Things like this happened all the time when the work got overwhelming near deadlines. Two people working as closely as they did were bound to break under the tension sooner or later. Usually it started with Nekojiru having a fit of rage (or more accurately, physically attacking Yamano).
As I looked at Yamano splayed out on the couch, visions of Nekojiru "training" her cat, Nyansuke, danced before my eyes.
I refused to let Yamano go home out of fear for his safety.
Before long, dawn broke. The sparrows began singing and the newspaper delivery truck passed by outside.
Nekojiru must have calmed down by now.
Yamano finally went back home to Nekojiru. "Nekojiru needs me," he said as he left.
Looking back on it now, the root of all their problems was the poverty that convinced them that they had to accept every commission once their books began selling.
If they had been in a position to choose their work, Nekojiru might not have died so soon.
"You guys need to take a break."
One day in 1998, at a time when Nekojiru and Yamano were in the midst of their hardest periods, my wife Saki and I paid a visit to the Nekojiru residence.
It was about three weeks before Nekojiru's suicide.
We sat together relaxing, listening to music. Nekojiru had a pair of speakers especially made for techno music, in the shape of a dodecahedron with speakers on each face. The high-hat came through particularly clearly on these speakers.
Nekojiru said little and sat still, completely focused on the grating sound of the high-pitched techno. Yamano, exhausted from the long days and nights of work, seemed pained by the harsh sounds.
Concerned, I suggested, "Let's listen to this," and put on some ambient dub. Yamano seemed releived, but Nekojiru, who preferred faster, more aggressive music, seemed displeased by the more mellow music and sulked in her corner.
Already on edge from lack of sleep, the psychedelic trance only seemed to serve to put her more on edge.
Nekojiru seemed to be in an unusually bad mood that day.
Suddenly I became uneasy when I remembered how she was prone to saying, "I'm not afraid of death."
As we left that day, Yamano and Nekojiru watched us for a good while from the porch. I can still remember the pleading, spent expression on Yamano's face.
"Don't go! Stay a bit longer! Don't leave us alone!" his eyes seem to beg.
After we left, I suppose they went back to work.
But they were already at the end of the line.
PEACE IN DEATH
"Chiyomi is dead. She committed suicide. You were one of her few friends, so I wanted to tell you right away."
I learned of Nekojiru's death by a phone call from Yamano.
They discovered her late, and rigor mortis had already set in. I learned of her death only a few hours after she was discovered.
When we received the call, my wife and I were in Shinjuku and thinking of going to the Imax. Yamano's call was a shock.
Yamano did his best to remain calm.
In the back of our minds we all had the vague notion that this might happen one day, but we never imagined she would actually go through with it.
The movie was put on hold and we ran to Yamano.
At that moment I was more worried about Yamano than about Nekojiru. I couldn't imagine the shock of losing one's wife to death. At the time I thought the most important thing - more important than mourning Nekojiru's death - was taking care of the person left behind.
Nekojiru's expression was calm. There was no trace of suffering on her face. No trace of regrets, of clinging to life. She seemed completely at peace.
It made sense to me, but it was also slightly terrifying.
A CD and a video of Aphex Twin were placed in her casket.
Aphex Twin's Ambient Works II was played at her funeral.
Nekojiru had written to do so in her will.
Having attempted to commit suicide in the past, Nekojiru had written wills on a number of occasions. Her last extant will in fact dated from several years prior.
However, at Yamano's discretion, not everything was done according to her will.
Nekojiru didn't want a gravestone. Yamano thought her family would want a gravestone so that they could visit her grave, so he had one made. But as if in a last act of defiance, the gravestone remains nameless. A single Sanskrit character decorates Nekojiru's gravestone.
Yamano told me once what it meant, but I've forgotten.
One line in Nekojiru's will reads: "No discussion of possible motives."
Yamano has for the most part refused all interviews.
At the time, the sight of Yamano was so painful to me that I almost couldn't bear to look at him.
5 years later. To think that now I stand in his position...
THOSE WHO CHOOSE TO DIE AND THOSE WHO CHOOSE TO LIVE
Suicide hurts the people left behind.
Nothing can describe the pain, or erase it.
Yamano only managed to endure it.
As the "Nekojiru" unit became popular, they became increasingly busy, until they became as inseparable as siamese twins. Nothing could separate them. To separate them you would have had to rip them apart. To do so would be to discard them, and you don't just easily discard a human being.
For a couple in a relationship as close as Yamano and Nekojiru, the pain of losing that other half must have been unbearable.
After Nekojiru's death, the abandoned half of the unit continued to release work in the Nekojiru series under the pseudonym of "Nekojiru y". Nekojiru and Nekojiru y look identical on the surface, but deep down they're completely different. Not in the sense that the former was hand-drawn and analog where the latter is digitally drawn; but in philosophy. Nekojiru chose to die, and her work clearly reflects her longing for death.
Yamano chose to live. That difference is immense, and reflected in their work. Yamano's work is completely lacking in the dangerous, trancelike mood of Nekojiru's work.
Many readers may have discovered the world of Nekojiru through Yamano's work done following the death of his siamese twin, but those who read Nekojiru from the beginning may feel something is lacking in the new work. The longing for death is completely absent in the new work. It's what I suppose you would call "healthy".
Yamano has become healthy again. That's why he no longer draws the sort of vicious manga he used to draw. He's grown beyond negativity.
When my wife committed suicide six years later in the fall of 2003, I found a pillar of support in another person who had lost his wife to suicide: Yamano. He understood my feelings of instability at the time. As I was teetering on the edge of mental exhaustion, he pushed me in the right direction.
Yamano had managed to overcome. That was a great comfort.
KILL OR DIE
Nekojiru's suicide made big headlines.
Almost certainly in no small part because it came so soon after the death of hide of X-Japan, Nekojiru's suicide was also given superstar treatment.
On May 28, 1998, the Shukan Shincho weekly wrote:
"There has been idle speculation that her suicide might be a copycat of hide. However, as far as I know she wasn't a fan of hide. Besides, she wasn't the type to copy other people."
The person the manga magazine editor was referring to in this quote was the mangaka Nekojiru. His point: The only similarity was that both seemed to have a bright future ahead of them.
Nekojiru began drawing manga after marrying the mangaka Hajime Yamano. She quickly gained a reputation for her style of manga that succesfully breached the gap between cute kittens and cruelty. After handling a television ad for Tokyo Electric, she looked to be on her way up.
The editor continues, "As anyone will realize if just they read her manga, beneath the surface cuteness was a self-destructive, pessimistic attitude towards life and death. In recent work she dismissed the earth as bound for annihilation, and laughed about how she almost went out of her mind after eating a magic mushroom in Bali. She was clearly teetering on the brink."
If only we could all be as uninhibited as Nekojiru's cats...
What could have made Nekojiru want to die?
Overwork was certainly a factor. Dealing with the big publishers must also have been a source of stress. Then there's her predisposition for depression.
But it's impossible to disregard the obvious signs in her work: The recurring theme of death's inevitability; the obvious disregard for life.
Nekojiru was the purest person I knew. My wife called her "authentic". Pure, authentic, natural acid, psychotic, shamanic. Words that spring to mind when I think of Nekojiru. It must have been impossible for someone of her purity and innocence to live in this world.
In the eight short year that I knew her, Nekojiru didn't change the slightest bit in terms of appearance or behavior. Most women would grow from childhood into adulthood, but it was like Nekojiru refused to grow old.
They say sales of Nekojiru character goods exploded after her suicide. Dying made her a hit. Nekojiru probably wouldn't have cared one way or another.
In any case, the living can never know what motivated the dead to take their lives.
I'm surprised she even made it to the age of 31. If she lived as long as she did, it must have been because of Yamano.
In the end, she wanted to die, so she died. That's all we can say for sure.
No attachments to life: Endearing though this trait of Nekojiru's might have been in one sense, it was terrifying in another. I'm the kind of person who wants to live as long and as enjoyable a life as possible, so I've always been somewhat scared of people who aren't afraid of death. But Nekojiru had lived long enough. Apparently she no longer needed this world.
She wrung herself dry in a furious fit of work over the span of a few years, and went out in a puff of smoke. It's so elegant it's almost scary.
Perhaps she was trying to tell the world about herself in her books all this time.
Kill or die: Given only one choice, the answer was obvious.
MEMORIES OF A RAVE
I'll never forget this memory of Nekojiru.
At a rave once I collapsed due to a combination of exhaustion and drug overdose. I needed an ambulance.
Seeing that I could barely stand, Nekojiru called the ambulance, made sure I got on safely, and waited worriedly for me until I came back from the hospital.
Other friends who had accompanied me to the rave, including Masaki Aoyama and Osamu Tsurumi, had disappeared by then, presumably fearing possible arrest.
Nekojiru wasn't afraid of dying, but she was afraid of a friend dying. She was selfish but caring.
Together we left the rave and joined Yamano at an onsen.
As I returned to my senses lying on the floor of a private room in the onsen, I was thankful to be alive, but also incredibly lonely. Tears began rolling down my cheeks. It's embarrassing to admit, but I couldn't stop crying.
"Why are you crying?" Nekojiru came to my side and asked with a worried expression. She stayed by my side for a while.
Perhaps she thought I might commit suicide if she didn't stay by my side.
"Are you all right?"
I had my arms over my face so I couldn't answer.
How could you have done something like that to yourself when you could be so caring about others?
I ask Nekojiru and I ask my wife.
How could you leave behind the people you cared for?
Part of me doesn't want to accept the selfishness of their act.
Nekojiru suddenly found her books selling. She probably didn't want to, but she had to accept all of the commissions that came her way. She worked hard and probably made a lot of money. But she didn't care about the money. She cared just as little about life. She predicted I would die at 35. Perhaps that's why she liked me - because she sensed in me another soul on the verge of death.
But I just act crazy. I don't want to die.