History of Neko in Second Life
Think of this lovely photo as the cover to your History lesson today… designed to reflect the artistic style of Japanese manga covers (for a very specific reason, as you’ll come to see). Open it up and turn to the chapter titled “History of Neko 101.” Are you wearing your perquisite Japanese schoolgirl uniform? Excellent. Let us explore the history and evolution of Neko, shall we?
The History of Neko
Lesson #1: Neko means “cat” in Japanese. And that’s where this story begins.
Back in the 1950s, Japanese manga (comic books) began depicting catgirls – typically called Nekomusume or Nekomimi. No one knows for sure why manga authors were inspired to create these cat-human hybrids, though it may have something to do with ancient Japanese folklore describing magical cat spirits called Bakeneko (sometimes known as NekoMata).
In this manga, Mizuki introduced a full list of yokai (spirit-monster) characters, including the lovely Neko Musume, a soft-spoken girl who transformed into a human-cat “monster” when hungry or upset (just look at the teeth on that little girl in the red dress…).
Yet Japan was not the only country with a strange cat-girl fascination. Right around the same time period, American girls were being exposed to catgirls too, including Catwoman (one of the villains in the Batman comics of the 1940s), Josie and the Pussycats cartoons in the 1970s, and the 1980s musical, Cats.
Although American catgirls were depicted as humans wearing a costume, versus the Japanese manga/anime catgirls who were technically a hybrid (half human, half cat), clearly some sort of catgirl phenomenon was silently brewing all around the world. All it needed was a spark…
Enter the dawn of Japanese cosplay (dressing up in costume to depict a favorite manga or anime character) during the mid to late 1990s.
Cosplay was, quite simply, the moment the Neko spark turned to flame. After witnessing countless adorable Nekomimi in Japanese manga and anime over the years, it was only natural that Japanese girls would choose Neko as one of their most beloved early cosplay characters.
And that, my dear cats and kittens, is when the first Neko began appearing in costume on the streets of Harajuku, Yoyogi, and Akihabara in Japan.
American girls, already familiar with cat costumes ala Catwoman and the Josie crew, quickly followed suit (pun intended). Catgirl forums sprang up, Neko cosplayers began to meet at conventions around the world, and a veritable community of ear-and-tail-wearing human-cat hybrids slowly coalesced.
Yet somewhere, somehow, in the midst of wearing all those furreh bits and seemingly innocent costumes, something strange started to happen. Something no one ever expected. Call it an awakening, call it a transformation… I’ll let this anime continue our story:
Neko no Ongaeshi / The Cat Returns
In 1989, a Japanese girl named Aoi Hiiragi wrote a manga series called “Whisper of the Heart” (Mimi o Sumaseba 耳をすませば). In them, she introduced a mysterious but elegantly dressed silver cat named The Baron. Her mangas inspired an anime movie in 1995, and a sequel in 2002 called “The Cat Returns” (Neko no Ongaeshi 猫の恩返し).
Although both animes featured The Baron, it was the storyline of the second anime that best makes my point. The story goes like this:
A young schoolgirl was captured and taken to the Cat Realm, where she was expected to marry the Prince of the Cat Kingdom against her will. During a pre-nuptual feast, she began magically transforming into a Neko (complete with paws, ears, whiskers, and a cute little Neko nose). Before the transformation was complete however, The Baron and other cats helped her escape… all in all, a fairly typical story up to that point.
Yet once she had arrived safely back home, a strange thing happened: the tail and ears gradually began to “feel right” as she discovered her true self. Which is, by no small coincidence, the very same story I’ve heard countless times from Neko in Second Life.
Which brings us to the final chapter of our Neko history: what do you get when you combine all of these catgirl influences, and mix gently in a virtual world? The birth of Neko in Second Life…
The Early Days of Neko in SL
Once again, the luck of my nine Neko lives was with me when I met Fa Nyak — one of SL’s early Nekos (and designer / owner of the store: >(O.o)< on Mew Island). (Note: to read about SL’s very first Neko, click here.)
“I remember when I first started selling kitty animation overrides, Neko didn’t even exist as a search term,” recalled Fa, pictured at right. “That picked up a year or so later. But there were only like two other stores with anything… basically a bell collar or something like that.”
So if “Neko” wasn’t a common term, what did they call themselves? “We called it catgirl,” Fa shrugged. “In fact I was really wierded out when everyone started calling it by the Japanese word Neko… I had always just said catgirl!”
(It’s true… outside of Japan and Second Life, the common term is catgirl / catboy. To this day none of us are quite sure how “neko” became the standard for catgirls and catboys in Second Life, however I suspect it had something to do with more and more Japanese joining Second Life, and their word for catgirls, “Nekomimi,” simply got shortened to “Neko.”)
During SL’s second year, Fa said with a smile and a headshake, the “Neko thing really took off, and now I don’t think I even show up in the search for Neko anymore, I’m so buried under all the Neko malls and shops.” (readers take note… she’s got excellent ears and tails…)
So there you have it. Born of ancient Japanese folklore, rooted in Japanese manga and American comics, inspired by anime, sparked by cosplay, and now living and evolving in the virtual world of Second Life (and other virtual worlds) where we can share our mutual affinity for all things feline no matter where we’re from… it seems we Neko have a pretty fascinating history. (Don’t worry, there will be no test; the Baron already gave me an A+.) ^_^
So You Wanna Be A Neko Too?
No problem! This blog’s got all your answers. We’ve got a whole page that explains exactly How to Be A Neko, along with links to all sorts of handy “how to” guides and resource pages (upper right column of this blog) to help you find your very own Neko Ears and Tails, Neko Skins, Neko AO and Animations, Whiskers, Paw Boots, and more. We’re just waiting to welcome you…
© Stacia Villota / Virtual Neko in Second Life – 2009