Japanese movies about cats and their human companions are by now an established local genre — or rather a feel-good-movie sub-genre since nearly all try to leave the audience with warm smiles and lowered blood pressures. This has proven to be a reliable box office strategy: The owners of Japan’s nearly 10 million cats never tire of films that show felines in a cute, positive light.
“The Island of Cats,” Mitsuaki Iwago’s screen adaptation of the hit manga by the single-named Nekomaki, is also in this line, though Iwago, a veteran animal photographer making his first feature as a director, shoots the cats on the film’s fictional island as he might lions on the African veldt.
That is, with an eye both sensitive and sympathetic, distanced and objective. His cats may be adorable, but they are not manga characters or ersatz humans. Iwago instead observes them in the act of being their natural selves in a kind of cat paradise with few cars and ample fish at the island’s small harbor.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||103 mins.|
The drama, however, centers on the humans who care for them and about them, particularly Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa), a 70-year-old former elementary school teacher living alone with his cat Tama. His beloved wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) died two years ago, though she is ever present in his thoughts — and in frequent flashbacks.
Tama begins as the film’s dulcet-voiced male narrator, who describes Daikichi affectionately as a “simple old man,” but he soon reverts to a cat-like silence. The story, however, perks gently along, as Daikichi makes his daily rounds with Tama and encounters the locals, including his gruff, life-long buddy Iwao (Kaoru Kobayashi), two bickering elderly ladies who are inseparable companions, and the island’s only doctor (Tasuku Emoto), a young newcomer who is in a perpetual fret about his graying patients.
Then a disruptor arrives in the form of Michiko (Ko Shibasaki), a gorgeous city woman who opens a trendy-looking cafe that Daikichi and the other old folks hesitate to enter — until she launches a charm offensive, whipping up delicious rice-with-peas that reminds Daikichi of Yoshie’s. Then, with Tama’s serendipitous assistance, Daikichi finds Yoshie’s handwritten recipe notebook at home and, with Michiko’s encouragement, begins to try and record recipes of his own.
This movie is a mental vacation, with images of lovable cats and portrayals of pure-hearted island folk easing away stress like a long soak in a hot spring. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, though around the 30-minute mark I began to wonder if “The Island of Cats” would become more than a mix of travelogue, animal documentary and food show.
It does, if with standard elements of local melodrama: A medical emergency here, a late-blooming romance there and, most typically of all, a sudden death just as happiness beckons. And the fate of an ownerless calico cat tugs at our heartstrings.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t become lugubrious or lachrymose. Even Daikichi’s fraught relationship with his adult son Tsuyoshi (Takashi Yamanaka), who lives in Tokyo and wants his dad to move in with him, has its soothing side.
And all the while the island’s cats keep reminding us that life can be wonderful if everyone can just get along, bliss out in the warm sun — and snatch the occasional fish from an unsuspecting fisherman.