Liberating an Interned Soul

S. James Snyder
03/02/2007

What a deceptively innocent title for such a tragic, affecting affair.

"The Cats of Mirikitani" is, quite simply, breathtaking — one of the most surprising and unshakable documentaries I can recall. Constructed around a story more far-fetched and coincidental than anything a writer of fiction would dare conceive, and brimming with a sense of anger and hope against all odds, this is a film that stays with you.

Watching "The Cats of Mirikitani" a day after this week's Academy Awards (though it made its world premiere at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival), it struck me that this documentary is every bit as infuriating and revealing as this year's Oscar-nominated tales of priest abuse ("Deliver Us From Evil") and fanatical evangelicalism ("Jesus Camp"). It could also be argued that "Cats" brings to life a conversation every bit as important as that forged by "An Inconvenient Truth," which won the gold statue.

That's because behind all the rhetoric, the director Linda Hattendorf had the benefit of luck — of being in the right place at the right time to capture just the right story.

Her film, which makes its New York premiere tonight at Cinema Village, begins simply as a story about a frail, elderly homeless man who sets up his cart and his cardboard box every day next to a deli just off Washington Square Park. As a man, he blends in to the homeless landscape, a body lost inside a puffy winter coat; as an artist, his playful drawings of cats and his darker depictions of what appear to be concentration camps capture the eyes of passersby.

The drawings were also enough to capture the eye of Ms. Hattendorf, who started filming him in 2001. Soon she learned he was a Japanese-American named Jimmy Mirikitani who had been a prisoner at America's internment camps during World War II.

A California native, Mr. Mirikitani was not shy about the chip on his shoulder, and the more Ms. Hattendorf learned, the angrier she became on his behalf. Torn from his family and his promising art career for nearly four years of confinement, Mr. Mirikitani claimed he was denied legal counsel, forced to sign away the citizenship his captors refused to recognize, and found his way to New York only after bouncing across the country as an illegal alien. When he was finally forced to move out of a friend's Park Avenue apartment, he had nowhere left to go but the streets — a oncepromising artist reduced to a broken man.

But like so many other things in New York, Ms. Hattendorf's project changed on September 11, 2001. As crowds gather in Washington Square to gawk at the fiery towers, Mr. Mirikitani looks instead to his paintbrush and begins to sketch the horrific images of the day. As the toxic cloud slowly spreads through downtown Manhattan, Ms. Hattendorf finds Mr. Mirikitani in the fog, coughing next to the deli. She pleads with him to come stay at her apartment.

During the next few months, Ms. Hattendorf will seemingly put her filmmaking career on hold to become her new friend's personal advocate. In the process, even more amazing stories start to flow from Mr. Mirikitani's memory.

A trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Japanese garden elicits memories of his childhood in Hiroshima, where many relatives perished in the Allies' atomic fireball. Incredibly, a woman photographed for a New York Times article comparing the nation's post-September 11 anti-Muslim sentiments to the anti-Japanese days of World War II turns out to be Mr. Mirikitani's long-lost relative.

As Ms. Hattendorf searches for Mr. Mirikitani's social security number — a quest he dismisses as a fruitless attempt to deal with the crooked American government — she suddenly finds herself immersed in the history of the internment camps, understanding for the first time the ways families were destroyed and liberties were trampled while the Supreme Court remained silent.

We begin to understand why Mr. Mirikitani is so enraged at and distrustful of this country — why he watches the nonstop news coverage during the aftermath of September 11 as a pacifist and sees history repeating itself.

During the span of only a few months, Ms. Hattendorf will find a way to break through the social security bureaucracy, reunite Mr. Mirikitani's fractured family, help him regain his financial footing, and make the emotional journey to a 60th-anniversary reception at his old internment camp.

Every step of the way, we watch a man slowly allow himself to rediscover a world, and a country, he rejected long ago. The day he is asked to lead a class in studying the technique of Japanese art, it is as if the dream he watched evaporate is reborn overnight.

While Ms. Hattendorf relies primarily on home video equipment to capture her early meetings with Mr. Mirikitani, the production becomes more sophisticated in the story's later chapters, as she recognizes the irony of his September 11 observations and captures the life-altering events that bring him back from the brink of despair.

Perhaps Ms. Hattendorf titled the film "The Cats of Mirikitani" as an act of understatement. When she started this project, her interest was piqued by a homeless man scribbling cats on paper. In the end, both the man and the movie evolved into something more profound: A testament to the way a government can so easily shatter a life, to how easily those in privilege can become disconnected from the victims, and to the smallest of efforts that make a broken man whole again.