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CATS OF MIRIKITANI, THE (director: Linda Hattendorf; cinematographers: Linda Hattendorf/Masa Yoshikawa; editors: Linda Hattendorf/Keiko Deguchi: music: Joel Goodman; Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Linda Hattendorf/Masa Yoshikawa; New Video; 2006- in English and Japanese with English subtitles)
It’s a gentle and inspirational doc about a street artist.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Young documentarian Linda Hattendorf was living in Sohoin 2001 and in January of that year met the 80-year-old homeless Japanese-American artist Jimmy Tsutomo Mirikitani, living on the outside shelter of a Soho Korean grocery store. The red beret wearing disheveled and hunch-backed Jimmy was born in Sacramento but raised in Hiroshima. When he refused military duty in Japan, the 18-year-old returned in 1938 to California to stay with his married sister. After Pearl Harbor he was placed with 120,000 other Japanese Americans in an internment camp during World War II and survived living in the Tule Lake camp in Northern California for 3 1/2 years. Forced by the government to sign a paper renouncing his American citizenship, Jimmy when released eventually settled down in Manhattan in 1952. He devoted himself to be a man of peace and to his art, drawing in a blend of eastern and western styles. His family was wiped out during the war, only his older sister survived in a different camp. They lost contact with each other during their internment, and only through Linda’s efforts was she tracked down living in Seattle and talked by phone to her long lost brother.

Linda is entranced by the talented Jimmy’s stunningly beautiful bold colorful drawings of felines and his artwork of his days of internment, and befriends him. After the 9/11 attack the air in Lower Manhattan was too toxic to breathe and the single Linda took a big risk and gave the homeless Jimmy shelter in her cramped apartment. While he was there she traced Jimmy’s past and found out he has no Social Security or other government benefits, thereby Linda goes through the bureaucracy to get him the benefits available to other citizens (as she discovered in 1959 Jimmy’s citizenship was reinstated but he never received the notification letter)–including finding him an apartment through the social-service agency that handles housing for the disadvantaged.

The colorful eccentric artist has a powerful story to tell that pulls at one’s heart strings. The sincere filmmaker gets his story down in this conventional doc, but she becomes too much a part of the story and her good deed, which is indeed a good deed, seems to get equal time with the heartbreaking story of the artist who still rails against the dumb American government for their racism by calling them the “goddamn Americans.”

The film warns about how the growing hostility toward Arab-Americans after 9/11 would be like repeating the story of the Japanese-American camps and not learning anything from how America’s past racism affected someone like Jimmy.

It’s a gentle and inspirational doc about a street artist, who calls himself a “grand master artist.” It’s an engrossing pic that shows both the horrors and goodness of humanity through the eyes of someone who was mistreated by the American government and after many years has learned how to deal with his anger to a country that took so much away from him.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”