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Utagawa Kunitoshi, “Newly Published Cat’s Games” (1884) (images courtesy of the Japan Society)

Cats are the darlings of the internet, but a new exhibition coming to Manhattan’s Japan Society this spring brings a different perspective to bear on our feline friends: Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-E Collection will showcase woodblock prints of cats from the Edo Period (1615–1867).

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Looking Tiresome: The Appearance of a Virgin of the Kansei Era” from the series Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners (1888)

In many of the prints on display in the Life of Cats, cats are dignified, even courtly, animals. They take their place alongside well-coiffed ladies, strolling around the grounds of palaces and wielding fancy fans. Occasionally, they even don aristocratic apparel; often, they are decidedly sophisticated, bordering on human.

The exhibition, which will be divided into five categories, “Cats and People,” “Cats as People,” “Carts versus People,” “Cats Transformed,” and “Cats and Play,” will shed some light on the status and cultural implications of cats in a different time and place. In a world so inundated with cat imagery, we would do well to expand our feline horizons, seeking out a more refined menagerie than the one that typically graces our computer screens.

Utagawa Hiroshige, “Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival” from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857)

Utagawa Hiroshige, “Cat Crossing to Eat” (1830–44)

Utagawa Kunisada, “Beloved Concubine Kocho, Her Maid Okoma, and Narushima Tairyo” (1853)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Empress Jingu Fishing for a Cat” (1882)

Utagawa Yoshiiku, “The Story of Otomi and Yosaburō” (1860)

Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-E Collection will be at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) from March 13 through June 7.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

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