Film / Reviews

‘The Cat in Their Arms’: Forget the idol-pop plot points and stick with the pets

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

You probably know the type: lonely, maybe even a little antisocial and more comfortable talking to cats than people.

Saori (Erika Sawajiri), the reclusive heroine of “The Cat in Their Arms,” certainly fits the bill. A former pop idol who has consigned herself to the anonymity of a rural supermarket, when she isn’t manning the cash register or singing alone at a local karaoke parlor, she’s off in the storeroom to have a good natter with a handsome Russian Blue called Yoshio.

Saori’s four-legged friend isn’t merely a good listener: He’s convinced that he’s a person too (even the kanji characters for his name literally translate as “good man”). In most of his scenes, he’s played by Ryo Yoshizawa, who makes a surprisingly convincing puss without recourse to animal ears, makeup or CGI.

The Cat in Their Arms (Neko wa Daku Mono)
Rating
Run Time 109 mins.
Language JAPANESE

It turns out that Yoshio isn’t the only one with a shaky grasp on reality. When he and Saori first appear together, they’re on the stage of an empty auditorium, surrounded by theatrical scenery to represent the storeroom. Isshin Inudo’s film is constantly switching between actual locations and stylized sets — filmed at a 1930s theater in Maebashi — though without drawing a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s just happening in Saori’s head.

At a nearby bridge, there’s a whole gang of strays, and as night falls they morph into something resembling the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” without the costume budget. Just to confuse matters further, many of the actors playing them — who are clearly having fun with all that purring and pouncing — also appear in other roles throughout the film.

When Yoshio goes missing, Saori teams up with a local artist nicknamed Gogh (Kazunobu Mineta) to find him. Meanwhile, Yoshio falls in with the strays, who have recently welcomed Gogh’s pet cat, Yellow, into their number, after she was dumped at the bridge by a spiteful niece. (She’s played by Wednesday Campanella singer Kom_I, a normally vivacious performer who seems a bit restrained here, and tends to get overshadowed by the other actors.)

The stylistic playfulness of the film’s anthropomorphic antics is awfully refreshing, so it’s disappointing when it swaps them for an altogether more familiar world, as it delves into Saori’s past life as a pop idol. Fifteen years earlier, she was part of a 1960s-style girl group called Sunnies, whose biggest hit reached No. 3 on the charts in 2002. But where did it all go wrong? And, really, who cares?

Idol-pop plot points have become nearly as ubiquitous in Japanese films and TV dramas as the idols themselves, and they’re almost never interesting. When Saori reunites with Sunnies for an asinine TV special, competing with other nostalgia acts for a chance to perform live on air, it’s a well-aimed jab at the casual cruelties of the entertainment industry, yet the entire sequence seems to belong in a different film. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cats.

Saori’s pop purgatory may have seemed worth caring about had it been portrayed by a more sympathetic actress. This is Sawajiri’s first leading role since 2012’s “Helter Skelter,” and she’s still just as frosty and brittle as ever, seemingly incapable of evoking human warmth. She probably shouldn’t be playing people at all, to be honest. With her air of elegant haughtiness, she’d make a good Siamese.