Japan’s love of cats started long before Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and cat cafés. Cats first came to Japanese shores aboard ships transporting sacred Buddhist scriptures from China, as a sixth-century rodent deterrent, and they have since made their way into Japanese domestic life and folklore.
An upcoming exhibition of woodblock prints at the Japan Society in New York City—Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection—explores cats as a popular leitmotif in vernacular art since the 17th century. Curator Miwako Tezuka selected prints that portray the felines in various relationships with their masters—Cats as People, Cats versus People, Cats and People, Cats and Play, and Cats Transformed.
For today’s cat-video-loving audience, a videographer in the Japan Society’s media department, Benjamin Warren, created a series of video shorts that animate the woodblock prints—drawing the eye to the remarkable details of the finely preserved images.
Working with Tezuka, he took this beautifully dense print by Utagawa Yoshifuji from 1880 depicting felines frolicking in a hot spring spa and created an appropriately languid video tour that guides the viewer, starting from the bottom of the composition:
Following the architectural elements of the spa, the camera first zooms in on cats entering through a gate, then glides to a second level where they have tea, shed robes and take a shower before entering the spa, and follows the kimono-donning kitties climbing to the top of the house where they relax in another tea ceremony.
“In working on this exhibit, I discovered that there were so many cat lovers in our staff,” Tezuka explains to Quartz. “We were all excited about it and looked for ideas to really activate this exhibition for a contemporary audience.”
More videos are in the works, says Tezuka, pointing out that the Japan Society has about a hundred prints in the exhibition to play with. ”The internet is for cats, after all.”