Japanese films, at both ends of the commercial-indie spectrum, are often about extremes. Deadly disease and violence are rampant. Characters sweat bullets and cry rivers. Viewers, including this one, sometimes wonder if their circuits are being permanently fried from all the over-stimulation.
The films of Naoko Ogigami are not only an answer to the noisy domestic competition, but also an antidote to everyday urban stress. Beginning with her 2006 hit “Kamome Shokudo (Kamome Diner),” a dramady about a middle-aged Japanese woman who finds a second start running the title eatery in Helsinki, she has made one film after another that detox their mainly female audiences with gently comic, enticingly homey visions of a less-hurried way of life. (Men here, as everywhere, tend to unwind at the theater with explosions and fart jokes.)
Meanwhile, members of Ogigami’s staff and cast have made other films that are similarly woman-centered, life-affirming and blood-pressure-lowering, such as Mika Omori’s “Puru (Pool)” and Kana Matsumoto’s “Maza Wota (Mother Water).” This is not to say Ogigami and her associates are making the cinematic equivalent of aromatherapy: Smart insights into the vagaries of the heart are served together with images of scrumptious home-cooked meals.
Ogigami’s latest, “Rentaneko (Rent-a-Cat),” is more on the fey and fabulist side than her previous work, beginning with its title occupation, practiced by the lanky, boyish, 30-something Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), who lives alone surrounded by a dozen or so cats. One sunny day we see her trundling six of them along the Tama River in an umbrella-topped cart, calling out to passersby with a small loudspeaker that she is renting the felines to “lonely people.”
Her “customers” include an elderly woman (Reiko Kusamura) living alone after her husband’s death, a businessman (Ken Mitsuishi) forced to live apart from his family, and a primly proper car-rental shop clerk (Maho Yamada) who never sees a client. The story takes a new turn with the appearance of a persistent former classmate (Kei Tanaka) with a checkered past who is more interested in her than her furry merchandise.
As is usual with Ogigami’s films, the simple premise is worked out with great attention to visual detail, from the heroine’s charmingly decorated Japanese-style house to her casually ethnic, perfectly coordinated wardrobe. Also, despite its repetitions, the story is told with enough variation, comic and otherwise, to ward off monotony, including periodic appearances by a nosy old neighbor (veteran DJ Katsuya Kobayashi in drag) who always says exactly the one thing that wounds Sayoko, if never fatally.
Outwardly the most stylish, coolly self-assured cat lady ever, Sayoko is inwardly a mess: wanting to marry but without a partner, and still mourning her beloved grandmother years after her death. She is, we see, one of the lonely people and needs her cats more than anyone.
The sudden appearance of the classmate, grown to a good-looking (and still obnoxious) guy, might signal “happy ending” in another film, but Ogigami is not so predictable. She may want to soothe her mostly over-30 fans rather than stir them up, but she also respects their intelligence and experience. People, they know, don’t change so easily — and that includes Sayoko.
More than a fairy tale for adults, “Rent- a-Cat” is like an illustrated collection of the so-called light essays so popular with female readers here. The style is spare but poetic, the mood is warm but wistful, and the characters are lovable but finally enigmatic.
Somewhat like the cats stretched out on Sayoko’s veranda, looking at their owner and us with those watchful, knowing eyes. What do they think of us, really?
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