WHEN YOU ARE ASTOUNDED by a film as much as I was by The Cats of Mirikitani, there can be an urge to lay out, moment by moment, the specifics with which you are so smitten. But so pleasurable for me was the experience of viewing this movie, unfreighted by any such anticipation, that I want that same experience for other viewers as well. So I’m only going to give a bare-bones sketch of what to expect. The most cursory description is that a nice woman in New York City befriends a homeless street artist of Japanese ancestry, Tsumoto “Jimmy” Mirikitani.
The film begins with what seems like a collage of the random and leisurely bluster of New York street-artist life. But be patient. At some magical point the story ascends and radiates into powerful connections that scarcely seem believable. We don’t yet understand that Jimmy — eighty-five years old and looking every wind-whipped, ice-bitten day of it — belongs to an ancient and honored samurai clan whose family crest includes the word trust. In Japan, Jimmy was a grand master artist.
As the kind New Yorker tries to help Jimmy — particularly in the ash-and-asbestos-filled days following the attacks of September 11 — and seeks to procure a Social Security card for him, we gradually discover exactly why he doesn’t have one: the U.S. government took away his citizenship during World War II when it imprisoned him, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, at Tule Lake, California.
Great, you might be thinking, a woebegone tale of victimization, another naughty thing our imperialist forebears have done — hardly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater. But you would be wrong. What was sacred and revered in Japan is homeless Styrofoam and plastic tarp-dreg in America. The Cats of Mirikitani is a painful movie to watch in this regard, but it does not possess the dreary self-flagellation or cultural condemnation of the left wing. Instead, at story’s end, there’s a solid sweetness. That’s all I’m going to say, other than that you’ve got to see it.