A Different Kind of "Cats"

Jerry Rapp
02/25/2011

The Cats of Mirikitani, a humble and profound documentary by skilled story weaver Linda Hattendorf, has traveled the world and been screened for thousands of people at festivals and other venues. On February 28 at 7 p.m., the Lawrence Arts Center hosts the film that has left such an indelible mark on all those it touches. The screening coincides with Shadows of Minidoka: Paintings and Collections of Roger Shimomura andDrawings of Jimmy Mirikitani; both exhibitions continue through March 12, and Shimomura and Hattendorf will be at the screening for a discussion with the audience on Monday.

The central narrative of The Cats of Mirikitani is about an artist, Jimmy Mirikitani, who was born in the United States and raised in Hiroshima, Japan. When Hattendorf discovered him in early 2001, the octogenarian was living in New York City, in the shadows of the World Trade Center's two main towers. What she uncovered was a wizened figure who lived to draw and paint — mainly pictures of cats, unsettling images from childhood, his imprisonment at an American World War II-era internment camp, and haunting images of destruction. Hattendorf stopped to inquire about his drawings and soon developed what would not only be a film project but a lifelong relationship. Hattendorf started out wanting to share the many stories and opinions of Mirikitani, but ended up fashioning a chronicle of the people of New York City, who were, of course, unaware of the tragic months ahead. Mirikitani's story accents the many life stories embedded in the homeless populations of US urban cities and other communities.

"When I met Jimmy, he was just a tiny elderly homeless man drawing pictures of cats on the streets," says Hattendorf. "I was curious and concerned, and I like cats, so I struck up a conversation. I initially thought I'd just do a simple portrait of the artist, perhaps in all seasons. But the more I learned more about his past, the more I realized he had a historically significant story to tell. I wanted to explore the link between losing homes in such a profound way and his winding up homeless 60 years later. The story kept evolving. At certain points I felt completely lost and had no idea where I was going, but I relied on an instinct that there was something important here. The way I see it, I just happened to be the person the universe chose to bring this story to the public's attention."

Over the course of several years, Hattendorf chronicles Mirikitani as he faces shifting challenges. After the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, and a colossal film of dust permeates Jimmy's tiny, stitched-together shelter, Hattendorf takes her subject in, blurring the lines between objectivity and subjectivity — feelings intrinsic to human nature. This section of the film provides a humorous commentary about co-habitation and drives home the point, "be careful whom you choose to live with."

Mirikitani does hold a wealth of stories, and one can only imagine how much was recorded overall versus how much made it into to this breezy — and all too short — feature. Mirikitani often, and eerily, recounts his childhood in Hiroshima and his lineage to Samurai warriors; analyzes Jackson Pollock; remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor; and paints endlessly the bleak landscape of the internment camps — but mostly, he jovially muses on his lifelong fascination with cats.

While living with Mirikitani, Hattendorf learns, among many other things, that her new roommate is related to Janice Mirikitani, who is Poet Laureate of San Francisco. Hattendorf strives to do the right thing, to find alternate housing and funding for her eccentric guest, but these are all gestures that Mirikitani politely refuses; what he does want are more painting supplies.

Eventually Hattendorf and Mirikitani trek to the West Coast to reunite with other former captives of the internment camps. Mirikitani is able to re-witness the same geography that he has painted hundreds of times. The moment is transcendent and disarmingly moving, punctuated by the artist's reuniting with a sister he hasn't seen in 50 years.

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Hattendorf holds degrees in literature, art history, and media studies and has been working in the New York documentary community for more than a decade. Her editing work has aired on PBS, A&E, and The Sundance Channel, as well as at theatrical venues and festivals. Among the many feathers in her cap is that she's served as a researcher on the Ken Burns's series The West. The Cats of Mirikitani, though, has marked her directorial debut.

"Editing is very much a quiet, behind-the-scenes profession, which I liked because I'm basically a shy person," says Hattendorf. "But with the success of Cats, I have suddenly found myself standing on brightly lit stages in front of huge audiences, taking questions after screenings, even signing autographs. It has taken me a while to get used to being a more public figure. But I'm enjoying it now, and have had some incredible years of traveling the world with the film, and meeting so many wonderful people."

The film has garnered dozens of awards across the United States, as well as in Norway, South Korea, Japan, Croatia, Bermuda, France, South Africa, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Ireland.

"Audiences everywhere love Jimmy," says Hattendorf. "Recently the director of a film festival in Italy came to visit Jimmy and to tell him that he is a favorite among audiences in Bologna. Last summer, a man from Sweden surprised his new wife with a trip to New York to meet Jimmy Mirikitani — on their honeymoon!"

It has been overwhelming for her to witness how so many different kinds of people respond to her film – all in the same way.

"And it's rewarding to know there is some universal core of humanity in Jimmy's story that resonates with audiences everywhere," she says. "Plus, I had no idea how many cat lovers there are out there."

Hattendorf is looking forward to showing her film in Lawrence, as she has an admitted affinity to the region: "Despite living in New York for over 20 years, I am proud to still consider myself a Midwesterner," she says. "Jimmy calls me and my family 'warm-hearted Ohio people,' and I guess maybe there's something to that. It's always a pleasure to return to the middle of the country where folks are naturally friendly, time passes a little more slowly, and you can still see the stars at night."

The Cats of Mirikitani should be any artist's must-see. It intimately explores the lingering wounds of war and the healing power of art. Ultimately, Mirikitani emerges as a strong survivor, driven to leave a legacy. This film follows suit — it will no doubt be recognized as a perennial classic.

"I think making art is what helped Jimmy survive the many traumas in his life," says Hattendorf. "Witnessing his dedication to art has inspired me as an artist and has given me an example of what it takes to persevere in this world."