Judge William Lee likes cats and he likes people. But the movie Cat People still creeps him out.
Make art, not war.
Working as a documentary editor for more than a decade, Linda Hattendorf had found the subject of her first directorial effort on the streets of her New York neighborhood. A homeless man named Jimmy Mirikitani was regularly seen around Washington Square Park creating and selling his artwork. His drawings and paintings showed a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences and the bright colors splashed across his canvases carried considerable emotion. Cats featured in his works, but Jimmy's art also drew upon his memories of three and a half years spent in a California internment camp for persons of Japanese descent during World War II.
The locals knew Mirikitani as a stubborn man who refused to accept handouts. He took money only from the sale of his artwork. Hattendorf met Jimmy in January 2001 when he offered her a drawing if she would photograph it. Thus began a professional relationship between artists. Linda continued to document Jimmy's art and record him at work over the year. But the course of Hattendorf's project was changed by the events of September 11.
As a toxic cloud settles over the neighborhood, Hattendorf is concerned for Mirikitani's health and invites him in to her cramped apartment. She tries to help him apply for social assistance but the artist protests, "I never touch Social Security." His objection is not based on pride. As Mirikitani opens up, we discover pieces of his history. He was born in Sacramento, Calif.; educated in Japan; returned to the US to pursue a career in art after his father insisted he join the military; he lived on Park Avenue before calling the streets his home. And the resentment of the lost years in the internment camp still lingers. Now, he wants nothing from the government that took "everything" from him and forced him to renounce his citizenship.
One day, Hattendorf spots a newspaper editorial comparing the current public anxiety toward American citizens of Middle Eastern ancestry to the treatment of Japanese-Americans a half-century earlier. The editorial was written by a San Francisco poet named Mirikitani. However, Jimmy does not know of any surviving members of his family and he was separated from his sister when they were sent to the camps. Hattendorf is determined to help her friend recover his life.
Hattendorf's personal involvement with the subject of her documentary clearly drives this story, but she seems reluctant to find herself before the camera's lens. The filmmaker provides occasional narration to explain what she has done or discovered off-screen (filing paperwork for Mirikitani, for example) but she tries to stay focused on her houseguest. The awkward blurring of the line between observer and participant makes The Cats of Mirikitani a unique documentary and an inspiring portrait of compassion and friendship. As Mirikitani reveals more of himself, and Hattendorf pieces together his story, the elderly artist begins to soften. The prospect of finding lost members of his family seems to re-ignite the fire within him. Hattendorf's documentary and her personal resilience show that time may dull the pain but it is people who facilitate the healing.
Though shot on a consumer quality video camera, The Cats of Mirikitani looks reasonably good on this DVD. The handheld camera work is steady and maintains a casual, intimate mood. Some static shots where the camera is simply left running in a corner of the room are not so precisely framed but work well enough to witness the interaction between documentarian and her subject. The picture exhibits more grain during darker scenes but not to the point of distraction. In some exterior scenes the limitation of the equipment is evident in the loss of detail on objects lit by direct sunlight. The passable mono soundtrack does what it needs to do in presenting this no frills audio mix. There are no subtitles aside from a few permanent ones in English that translate Japanese dialogue.
In the extras department, this DVD provides a satisfying bit of closure to this real life drama. An eight-minute interview with Professor Roger Shimomura of the University of Kansas provides a lot of background to the American internment camps during World War II. Shimomura was himself sent to one such camp. He also explains the psychological effect the experience had on different generations of Japanese-Americans.
Four other video diaries show Mirikitani after the events of the documentary. Two segments cover his visit to Seattle for a family reunion. Another one documents his first solo art exhibit. Finally, Mirikitani visits his childhood home of Hiroshima, Japan in 2007 on the anniversary of the first atomic bomb explosion.
A moving story, The Cats of Mirikitani proves that something beautiful can emerge from tragedy. Art has the power to keep the human spirit alive through years of suffering and decades of suppressed rage. But the true art of humanity is our ability to help one another rebuild ourselves. All parties are free to go.
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