Deceptively unassuming, The Cats of Mirikitani seems like a sweet little bauble of a documentary at first, a simple portrait of one of those colorful street characters indigenous to artistic urban enclaves. Linda Hattendorf, a documentarian living in SoHo, meets elderly street artist Tsutomu “Jimmy” Mirikitani on 1 January 2001. Intrigued by his drawings, she decides to start filming him in action and following him as he wanders the streets of New York.
Prolific and generous, Mirikitani gives away his art for free to whomever asks. Proud and stubborn, he accepts no payment (except that the “buyer” take a photograph of the drawing), and accepts no help, even as the January snow piles up around him on the streets. Through spring and summer she trails him, and we learn a bit about Mirikitani’s story — his life in Japan, his early career as an artist, and, briefly, in passing, about his internment in California during World War II. But still, he remains mostly a closed book.
All this changes with 9/11. Amidst the rain of ash and fumes spilling out over SoHo, Hattendorf convinces Mirikitani to come home with her, if just for a little while, for shelter (much as you’d take in a stray cat, I guess?). This one act of simple compassion is the major turning point, both in the film and in Mirikitani’s life. As he becomes more ensconced in Hattendorf’s flat, and continues with his drawing (which progressively takes over more and more of the apartment), we start to learn more about Mirikitani’s life and trials, and what his art means, as he reveals more and more of himself to the omnipresent camera.
Born in Sacramento in 1920, Mirikitani is a US citizen. However, he grew up in Japan, in Hiroshima, after his mother emigrated back during the 1920s. Growing wary of the nascent Japanese militarism, the pacifist Mirikitani returned home only to find himself almost immediately thrown into one of the several internment camps the US used to detain those of Japanese descent thought to be a threat to national security during World War II (most of whom were in fact US citizens, like Mirikitani). The three years he spent at Tule Lake, California (the largest camp, with a population of 18,000) would prove to be the pivotal event in his life (how could it not be?) and would haunt him and his art.
All through Mirikitani’s profusion of drawings, two main themes keep appearing, almost obsessively – the titular cats (Cheshire-like in their eeriness) in memory of a friend of his in the camp who died there, early and young; and, more ominously, the landscape of the camp itself, with a forbidding mountain-scape in the background, and utter desolation in the fore. He repeats this same scene over and over, like he is trying to bore down to some fundamental truth, to find some semblance of understanding.
In the present he finds new parallels and bridges with his past, between the profiling and targeting of Arab-Americans and Japanese-Americans, as well as between the World Trade Center and the bombing of his hometown of Hiroshima (where entire chunks of his family tree were completely wiped out). His drawings of calamity, past and present, seem almost to be a dialogue between times and places which aren’t separated by all that much distance.
As the months tick by into early winter, Hattendorf starts urging Mirikitani to take steps to get back on his feet and into mainstream society. Proud and defiant still, Mirikitani is adamant in refusing any help the US would give him — he let his citizenship lapse long ago, and refuses his social security checks. He begins to soften, though, the more he comes to terms with the past, and the more he attempts to recover it, reuniting with far flung family who were scattered during internment.
Reemerging from his self-imposed exile, Mirikitani’s journey through his past culminates with a reunion with his long lost (and assumed dead) sister and a return to Tule Lake for a reunion with other camp members. The end of the film finds him setting back out on his own, though this time with his own apartment/studio and with a new social support network.
To the film’s credit, The Cats of Mirikitani never plays for cheap sentiment, nor really for any sympathy. I appreciate this, because it could have gone for the throat quite easily, and probably still would have worked — but it wouldn’t have felt earned. This is a simple and matter of fact documentary with no larger theme or message beyond Mirikitani and his life. The themes of war, and imprisonment, and the lives of the indigent, which society turns its back on — these almost seem secondary (though obviously still very important) to the story told.
Most important is the story of Mirikitani’s life — his struggles, his suffering, his triumph over his past. Instead of grand pronouncements, or directorial editorializing (Hattendorf, to her credit, remains entirely unobtrusive throughout the film), the film is content to let the man be the argument, with no other explanation necessary.
In one of the deleted scenes (about 35-minutes worth, which expand upon certain scenes but maybe would have disrupted the flow of the film), and in one of the few instances where Hattendorf addresses the camera, she says that what attracted her to Mirikitani and his art was that he was always struggling to “make history visible”. And this, in the end, is what we see: 80 years of a hidden history, one which most of us never think of at all, written out in the wizened face and spoken in the creaky voice of a man who would reveal profound depths and understanding, if only we looked and listened.