Rock ‘n’ Roll Kitties: Remembering the Nameneko Japanese kitten videos that were a “Night Flight” favorite

By on January 29, 2016

If you watched the original “Night Flight” TV show of the mid-80s on a regular basis, you may have seen these cute Japanese videos of kittens dressed in leather jackets and Japanese headbands, rocking out on tiny instruments.

The videos were moving images based on the photography by Japanese photographer Satoru Tsuda, and also went by several brand names, including Perlorian, Nameneko (なめ猫), Namennayo, and Don’t Pelorian!

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Tsuda didn’t originally like cats too much, apparently — they kept attacking his birds — but in 1979 he rescued four tiny kittens he’d found abandoned at a dry cleaner’s shop near his home. They’d just been born and couldn’t yet open their tiny little eyes. Tsuda fed them milk with a dropper, and took them to work with him in a basket.

After a few months he saw one of them, his favorite (named “Matakichi,” which was the name of the dry cleaning business) playing with little doll costumes that were left behind by his girlfriend, which gave him the idea to dress up the cats in the outfits, which fit them perfectly, and he took funny photographs of the kittens running around, sharing them with his friends. They were an immediate smash hit, of course.

Tsuda then ended up having a poster made of Matakichi, dressed as a biker in a motorcycle gang, featuring text which translated to “All Japan Fast Feline Federation — You Won’t Lick Us!” (in fact, that’s what the Japanese word nameneko apparently means in English — “Unlickable”– while the slang version namenayo translates roughly to ‘Don’t lick me…”).

That poster went on to sell 8 million copies, launching a fad for more Perlorian items, particularly those showing the kitties looking like juvenile delinquents, or as members of a rock band or as bikers, smoking in bathrooms and generally behaving badly.

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But there were other Perlorian photographs too — all of them showing real kittens dressed up and arranged in appropriately-sized dioramas — showing them doing human activities like camping, going off to school, or playing with toys. There was some concern initially that the kittens were being mistreated by Tsuda, but he explained at the time that the shoots involved a lot of people and a lot of patience, and the kittens were photographed for no longer than ten minutes at a time, and for no more than once every three days. Matakichi lived happily to the ripe old age of 16, and Mekiko lived to be 24.

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As you might expect, there were many kittens photographed by Tsuda over the years — Matakichi, the original kitten, had four kittens herself — and usually they were photographed about ten times total, from fifty to eighty days after they were born, and then were retired.

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The writing on this Nameneko “license” shows a location of “Bonito city, Whale prefecture,” and some of it translates to English as: “Do not grab handle with your tail” and “Do not use catnip when driving.”

The posters and photos also led to a series of children’s books, written by Suzanne Green (The Birthday Book, Going To School, Seasons, and Busy Day), a Topps 1983 set of Nameneko trading cards (collect all 56!), but also novelty fake driver’s licenses (12 million of those were sold), underwear, and a handheld video game made by Bandai, among hundreds more mostly-novelty items — and, of course, these cool videos which aired on Friday nights on “Night Flight.”

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In the introduction to the book Note to Grown-ups, the “Perlorian Cats” were described as “very special animals photographed by a very caring group of photographers led by Satoru Tsuda. The cats are specially chosen for their expressive faces and comfort with the photography sessions. These photographs are taken at incredibly high shutter speeds to capture a pose and an expression without any discomfort to the cat or cats involved. No artificial substances are used – just love and patience! And the cats seem to respond beautifully to the attention and caring that surround them.”

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At its height in the early 1980s, Perlorian kitties appeared on over 500 different pieces of merchandise, but like most fads, the initial burst of interest eventually died down, but today, you can find people collecting vintage Namennayo items, and in 2010, for the brand’s 30th anniversary, some were produced again, reigniting interest in the crazy for rock ‘n’ roll kitties. That interest doesn’t seem to have subsided as there is even today a community page on Facebook for Kittens Without A Cause.

One regular “Night Flight” viewer was Larry King, who works today, and for the past nearly ten years, as an announcer for ABC Radio Networks. He’s been a long-time radio DJ personality, mostly in classic rock radio formats since the early 90s, and he’s even got his own graveyard-shift late night show where he goes by the name “Late Night Larry.” Larry alerted us to the Nameneko vids and sent us the following note:

“I must be in your demographic, because I watched ‘Night Flight’ throughout its run on the USA Network. Just 19 when the show started in 1981. NF was an incredible mash-up of many of the things I most enjoyed. Midnight movies and Drive-Ins. Film classes and Fangoria. Record collecting and reading Trouser Press. And, y’know… Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll.

I lived in Beaumont, Texas, but I know the experience was the same for at least thousands of cool-nerds my age. ‘Night Flight’ lasted all night! No matter your weekend plans, you could probably catch a good chunk of the show. The program was four hours long, and was repeated. Many times you would have to watch it a second time just to comprehend whatever strange thing they were showing.

NF became an interactive experience for me when I got my first VCR in 1984. I set out to record everything cool. The tapes were expensive, and I would end up with lots of tapes that had just a little recording time left. ‘Night Flight’ was the perfect source for short-form programming. I spent most of that year tuned in, cabled remote in hand, ready to record some weird shit.

There’s so much to champion from the little bits aired on NF, but I want to share my favorite thing, a wonderful WTF music video from Japan: “Nameneko”, featuring adorable little kittens. Since cat videos are now everyone’s favorite entertainment, hopefully “Nameneko” will find will find a hip new audience. As for me, I will continue to follow the new adventures of Night Flight on your Facebook page.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.