“He seemed all alone, and I had never seen such an elderly man out on the streets. There was something about him that compelled me to talk . . .” That was how New York documentary filmmaker Linda Hattendorf describes her meeting with Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, one snowy day in New York in January 2001. Then 80 years old, Mirikitani had been painting his beloved cats as he had done for 20 years and taking shelter from the snow under the awning of a grocery shop. Hattendorf was so taken by Jimmy that she changed her usual route to and from work to “check up on him, see how he was doing.” She sometimes offered money, but the elderly artist (he referred to himself as “Grand Master Artist”) asked for very little except to have photocopies made of his drawings.

When the Twin Towers collapsed and New York’s entire downtown area was enshrouded in fumes and despair, Hattendorf made the offer to take him to her home. During the whole of that day, Jimmy had continued to paint, his back stooped over his makeshift table and seemingly oblivious to the wails and pandemonium erupting all around him. By evening the streets were completely deserted and she found him in his usual spot, coughing from the fire smoke.

At first, he refused her offer. She was dealing with a man who had refused to accept U.S. citizenship because he didn’t hold with a government that forced him into an internment camp 60 years back — as he says in the film: “But I was born in Sacramento and had a U.S. passport!” (His passport and citizenship were taken away when he was detained).

The Cats of Mirikitani
Director Linda Hattendorf
Run Time 74 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (Sep. 7, 2007)

She tried a different tack, to make him understand this wasn’t about politics. “I said to him, ‘Jimmy, the air is poisoned, it’s not good to breathe.’ That finally convinced him, because he grew up in Hiroshima and could understand about how bad the air became after a bombing.”

Thus began the cohabitation of Linda Hattendorf and Jimmy Mirikitani, whose relationship comes off like something one may see in a Yasujiro Ozu film: an elderly uncle and his favorite niece. Having installed him in her one-bedroom apartment, Hattendorf recorded their conversations with Mirikitani at work. At 80 he constantly worked. The only demands he made were for more pens.

Five years later these recordings became the documentary “The Cats of Mi-rikitani.” It features Mirikitani, his art and the gaze of Hattendorf, which is warm but never intrusive or sentimental. She wished to help him, but she makes no bones about their cohabitation being a collaborative project rather than an act of aid on her part. Jimmy would never allow himself to be pitied anyway.

Gradually they forge emotional bonds — when Linda has a night out and comes home after midnight Jimmy scolds her like a high-school girl past her curfew (“I was worried, so worried!”). When Jimmy, in turn, takes a walk in Washington Square Park and doesn’t make it home, Linda can’t help voicing her concern. At times, his colossal artist’s ego rises to the surface and you wonder how Linda can put up with it; at other times their relationship seems deeply trusting and grounded on the kind of friendship that you rarely get to see, on screen or in real life. “Cats” is striking because of this unlikely and incredible intimacy, a tale of two completely different people who care about (and care for) each other without any apparent need to shorten the distance between them.

While Hattendorf’s camera and storytelling is Jimmy-centric, Jimmy has issues on his mind, such as the grudge he still bears toward the U.S. government, how he hasn’t seen his sister (his only surviving relative) in 60 years, and the way the war destroyed most of his family. The name Mirikitani is a rare one in Japan, and according to Jimmy, “everyone who has that name is related.” San Francisco poet Janice Mirikitani turns out to be the daughter of Jimmy’s cousin, but his branch of the family died in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb hit it.

“War no good” is one of Jimmy’s recurring phrases and it’s astonishing to hear how, having lived so long in the United States, his English has retained that indomitable Japanese accent (Hattendorf uses English subtitles for those who can’t quite catch what he’s saying) and how, at night, he sings snatches of traditional Minyo folk songs before dozing off. At times he breaks into Japanese, and chatters excitedly to Linda as if she were a real Japanese daughter who totally understands. She probably does.

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