The Cats of Mirikitani: Of Art and Scorn

“Jimmy” Mirikitani is a New York homeless artist, a victim of Japanese Internment in the 1940’s.  When the tragedy of 9/11 forces him out of his neighborhood, documentary editor Linda Hattendorf decided to take him into her own home. As she films him creating his artwork, she seeks to find Jimmy a suitable home. While investigating the options and asking Jimmy for details such as his Social Security information, she finds a man still deeply affected by the betrayal he endured even decades later.

The Cats of Mirikitani, which released in 2006, is an intriguing look not only in an eccentric old man but a reflection of America’s past and how it echoed in recent times. This is the kind of documentary that only one person in the world could have made, had it not been for Linda deciding to point a camera at Jimmy the world would have never known his tale.  The short version is that Jimmy, born in Sacramento, was an aspiring artist who blended eastern and western art styles into one unique form. As he aged his artwork began to reflect himself: it was rough, overly simplistic, using only the most simple and mundane supplies, and became obsessed with the Internment camp at Tule Lake (where Jimmy spent almost four years of his life) and the bombing of Hiroshima where he once visited as a child. Strangely enough, the title of the film is a bit off as it doesn’t focus on his artwork about cats. Yes, Miritikani makes a lot of artwork of cats, but even that is the scar of his experience in Internment as he tells the story of a boy who constantly asked for pictures of cats from Jimmy before he died in the camp. I think Linda was trying to make the connection that Jimmy had grown to be like an old cat who constantly mews for attention.

Mirikitani is charming, if not sometimes blunt. His quirks often bring a smile to your face as you watch him uprooting a plant from the Japanese Botanical Garden and telling Linda she could put it in a pot,  how at the movie rental shop he flips through movie after movie asking “Samurai?” until he finds such film, or how he sings to himself when no one else is around. As the film goes on though you learn more about Jimmy as he explains his history. You can feel a seething hatred for what the American government did to him and many other Japanese people, and it comes out in a very unusual fashion. Instead of some other people who, in the same position, might have tried to take as much as they felt entitled to, Jimmy constantly refuses to accept aid from Social Security or other government programs. He’s proud of his work and that his art earns him mostly what he needs to survive, but you can sense his strong pride coming through in his flat out denial of the government’s apology. He gets easily worked up and goes into diatribes about how white men assembled in a room and decided “Cut their citizenship” and “You want workers? Take these people.”, remarking about the renunciation of citizenship and forced labor. When most of the nation had forgotten about this stain in our history, it was all Mirikitani could think about.

There’s another element that made this documentary hit as hard as it did. I don’t think it’s fair to call it serendipitous, but the coincidence of the events is staggering. The film opens in early 2001, and very early on you know the documentary is going to have to tackle the subject of the 9/11 attacks. It becomes a ticking time bomb, title cards indicated the months getting closer and closer to the tragedy, the final one being in August when Jimmy is preparing to honor the anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.  Linda tastefully discusses 9/11 in brief, narrowing it down to a simple montage of the events and not dwelling upon it more. The tragedy accomplished two things for the film, it propelled Jimmy into the story that fills most of the film when Linda offers him into her home, and the ensuing hatred that flamed up towards Middle-Eastern citizens by the American populace became a horrific reminder of the same hatred felt by those in 1941 after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Jimmy doesn’t draw comparisons, however, he just sits quietly watching the news as it talks about how most Americans felt those of Middle-Eastern decent should carry special identification cards, regardless if they were a US Citizen, or the many acts of violence that unfolded in the wake towards people not even remotely connected. The most important comment I can make on this is that Linda’s restraint to turn the film into a more social documentary than a personal one took some gusto and I think the film became stronger for it. Here the comparison acts as a simple reminder, something for the audience to mull over in their head and while hearing Jimmy’s story try and put themselves into the shoes of someone Middle-Eastern.

As far as the technical details go the documentary is a bit rough. The camera is of fairly low quality, something my own camera could produce, and the audio is roughly mixed to the point that, paired with Mirikitani’s strong accent, requires the use of constant subtitles. But the beauty of a documentary is that if the subject is as compelling as this then the flaws don’t matter. Not once while watching did I actually think “Ugh, I wish this was in HD” because it didn’t matter. This was likely filmed on Linda’s personal camcorder for home movies and she exercised the best use of it that she could muster given the resources. You’re not watching this for eye-gouging visuals, you’re watching to hear a story.

I’d highly reccomend this film to anyone interestd in documentaries. If you’re like me and you love to hear true-life stories and witness real human emotion than this is right up your alley. I was reminded a lot of 2010 film Marwencol. While the details were all different at its core we had someone who had an extreme passion for art because after a terrible tragedy it was all they had left in life to hold onto. At the time of this posting it is available through major retailers as well as through streaming services such as Netflix.

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