Jimmy's 'Cats': From World War II to Sept. 11... and Beyond

Frank Mastropolo
05/03/2007

"I hereby formally renounce my United States nationality and all of its rights and privileges…" -- Jimmy Mirikitani


Sacramento-born artist Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani was 22 at the outbreak of World War II when he was separated from his sister and placed in an internment camp. He was one of the 120,000 people imprisoned by the U.S. government because of their Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds of them, Mirikitani included, were American citizens.

Mirikitani spent nearly four years in Tule Lake, Calif., a high-security camp where those considered "disloyal" to America were placed. This betrayal by the U.S. government led him to renounce his citizenship; he was one of 5,500 Japanese-Americans to take that extreme step. And like many internees, Mirikitani used his art as a way to document his life while coping with incarceration.

Mirikitani painted the harsh environment of Tule Lake -- the desert, the mountains, reptiles and the camp itself, its rough barracks, watchtowers and gates. He often included himself in his pictures, trapped behind the barbed wire fences. As an art instructor in the camp, he taught calligraphy and painting, and exhibited his work in shows at the recreation hall. But the recurring theme in his art since he was a child is cats, often in pairs, all sizes, leaping over mountains or lounging about.

"I like cats," Mirikitani explained this week in a conversation in his small assisted-living apartment in New York. "I'm an artist, and all over people know my cats."

He's right, thanks to a new film by director Linda Hattendorf, "The Cats of Mirikitani". The film begins with Mirikitani homeless on the streets of lower Manhattan in early 2001. Mirikitani is an artist who refused handouts but would sell his drawings -- not just of cats but dragons and flowers native to his ancestral home of Hiroshima -- in Washington Square Park.

Hattendorf hoped to raise awareness of the problem of homelessness through the story of this 80-year-old man living on the streets. But on the morning of Sept. 11, after months of filming, Hattendorf found Mirikitani choking on the toxic smoke billowing from the World Trade Center site. She impulsively invited him to live with her. In their months together, she began to unravel the details of his past to help him receive government assistance and she learned about Mirikitani's wartime imprisonment and how it shaped his life.

Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist who has met Mirikitani, believes the repetition of the theme in his art was Mirikitani's way of dealing with trauma.

"As a psychotherapist I've worked with many Japanese-Americans around the issue of the internment," she told ABC News. "There's definitely been a lot of art that has surfaced that people created while they were in the camps."

Dr. Ina interviewed internees while producing the film "From A Silk Cocoon", the story of her parents' imprisonment in Tule Lake, where they too eventually renounced their citizenship. Mirikitani's repeated drawings of cats, she said, reflect "this kind of repetition phenomenon where they have to recreate some aspect of the trauma in order to get some sense of mastery over it."

After the war and his release, Mirikitani learned to cook and became nomadic for many years, working in restaurants and country clubs up and down the East Coast, eventually becoming a live-in house worker in New York City. But when his employer died, Mirikitani became homeless. Because of his bitterness toward the government, he never applied for assistance.

When director Hattendorf inquired about Mirikitani's records in 2001, she learned that his citizenship had been reinstated in 1959. Mirikitani was unaware that his request to withdraw his renunciation had been approved 40 years before. He never received the letter notifying him because he had moved around so much in those days.

Hattendorf said Mirikitani's art changed after he joined a group of internees in a pilgrimage to the Tule Lake camp in 2002, a reunion captured in the film.

"Before going there, he always drew the same grim landscape of the camp -- the mountain, the fence, the gate, and himself, a tiny figure trapped behind the fence," she said. "After we revisited that site with a community of former internees and their families, his depiction of Tule Lake changed: The mountain remained, but the fence disappeared, the gate was open, and he never put himself in the picture again."

And on that trip, in one of the many emotional moments for the film's audience, Mirikitani is reunited with his sister Kazuko after 60 years apart.

Last year, President Bush signed into law a $38 million grant program to preserve what's left of Tule Lake and nine other internment camps; the camps will serve as a reminder of that dark period of history. When we asked about the Tule Lake of the past, Mirikitani instead talked excitedly about the next reunion in 2008. Mirikitani plans to donate one of his drawings to the camp and hopes it will be exhibited once the site has been developed.

At 86, Mirikitani attributes his longevity and health to practicing karate and "no bacon, no sausage -- nothing greasy." But one suspects the secret to Mirikitani's longevity is his creativity.

"I go to work at midnight, when everybody else sleep," he said.

And when does he sleep?

"I sleep six hours. Daytime sleep."

His living room is crammed with collages, paintings, sketches -- even a painted rock with a cat's photograph in the center. On the easel is a large drawing done in sumi -- Japanese charcoal -- of a dozing cat.

Mirikitani has his own cat now, a sleepy 4-year-old, but the model for this drawing was a "wild cat" he saw on one of the nature shows on TV they love to watch together. Their other favorite: samurai movies.

"The Cats of Mirikitani" has been a critical and popular success, winning raves and awards at film festivals like Tribeca. Audience reaction is so strong that the film has had extended runs across the country and is currently in theaters in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Tempe and other cities.

And Mirikitani's art has been embraced by the art world: He's had exhibits at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.

Mirikitani recently received a standing ovation in Sacramento, his birthplace, at a "time of remembrance" during a trip sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League; and in Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels presented Mirikitani with a proclamation honoring him and his work.

People who bought one of the drawings from the homeless man in the park years ago may find they now own a valuable piece of art.

Mirikitani, a pacifist whose motto is "Make art not war," once told Hattendorf, "Art is very important. Otherwise people would kill each other." And she said she agrees with his sentiment.

"Art can build community across many divides," she said. "We have screened 'The Cats of Mirikitani' all over the world, and the responses of audiences are the same everywhere; people laugh together, cry together -- an emotional bond is formed that endures long after the lights come up."


In May, PBS will air "The Cats of Mirikitani" and "From a Silk Cocoon," as well as other films in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Please check your local listings for day and time.