Film / Reviews

‘Nekoatsume House’: The cat’s meow of Japanese comedy

by Mark Schilling

Japanese audiences never seem to tire of movies about dogs and cats. The millions of devoted pet owners here are certainly one reason, though the Brits, also known for their animal worship, do not express it as often in films.

Masatoshi Kurakata’s delightful, blood-pressure-lowering “Nekoatsume House” suggests another reason for the title hero’s obsession: In Japan’s stressed-out society, naturally blissed-out cats provide not only companionship, but also an entry point to another reality. Call it Cat Satori.

The film, which is based on a popular smartphone game, is clearly for cat fanciers, though it mines laughs from its subject that anyone can enjoy, while never crossing the line to, um, cattiness. Also, unlike the many local film adaptations from other media that try to ape their source, the film seems to have sprung whole from an original cinematic mind. A veteran assistant director who made his directorial debut with the sentimental 2011 drama “Crossroads” (“Railways: Ai o Tsutaerarenai Otonatachi e”), Kurakata has made a sure-footed leap forward with this film, perhaps inspired by his feline subjects.

Nekoatsume House (Neko Atsume no Ie)
Rating
Run Time 92 mins
Language Japanese

As our story begins, a one-time wunderkind novelist, Masaru Sakumoto (Atsushi Ito), is grinding out a zombie-themed serial novel for a weekly magazine. On his down time he is usually either napping or Googling himself and a more successful rival, only to wallow in misery over the comparison. He has an ally in Michiru Towada (Shioli Kutsuna), a young editor assigned to collect his copy for her hard-nosed boss (Tomorowo Taguchi). Though all business, she sees him as a talent to be helped, not a hack to be exploited.

Desperate for a change, Masaru takes the cryptic injunction of an elderly fortune teller to heart and escapes to the countryside. There he rents a roomy old house and is settling down to work when a neighborhood cat comes calling. While battling his demons, including the fully justified fear of his own professional demise, Masaru gradually makes friends with his whiskered visitor — and a smile returns to his face. Not long after, he wanders into a town pet shop and asks its understanding owner (Tae Kimura) “What makes cats happy?” Her answer sets him on the path of happy cat-collector-dom. Then Michiru arrives with bad news: His zombie serial has been canceled.

Unlike the many Japanese animal films that either anthropomorphize their critters or use them as glorified props for the dramas of the human characters, “Nekoatsume House” gives Masaru and his collection of strays essentially equal billing, with a close-up of the former (often with a cat toy in hand) followed by one (or more) of the latter. Also, instead of coaxing the cats to perform, cinematographer Kei Yasuda captures their antics documentary style — and the results are more often ridiculous than not, though they will doubtless make some viewers squeal “Kawaiiii!

Ito’s comic timing as Masaru is perfectly in synch with those of his diminutive co-stars, though his agonies are recognizably human. Meanwhile, Kutsuna as Michiru delivers home truths to Masaru’s unwilling ears with a level, if sympathetic, gaze.

Given the film’s gently pixilated tone, I wondered why love was not in the air, even in Masaru’s backyard cat paradise. He is immune to the charms of not only Michiru (who admittedly never lets her professional mask slip), but also Kimura’s pet shop owner, who becomes both his employer and teasing confidante.

But Masaru is a writer through and through and will never be satisfied until he escapes his slump. Romance seems to strike him as a distraction. And he already has his cats, doesn’t he?