Living Nine Lives to the Fullest

Chris Knight
11/08/2006

THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI

Documentaries show us that poverty and marginalization can dim but never extinguish the creative spark. Linda Hattendorf's new film examines the life and work of Jimmy Mirikitani, an octogenarian artist living on the streets of New York City. It joins such uplifting works as Born Into Brothels (about kids from the slums of Calcutta who become photographers), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (a natural naturalist in San Francisco) and In the Realms of the Unreal (a Chicago janitor whose 15,000-page illustrated novel was discovered as he lay dying).

Hunched, soft-spoken, clear-headed and opinionated, Mirikitani had his life effectively derailed by the events of the Second World War. Born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1920, he was raised in Hiroshima, Japan, and returned to the U.S. in 1937 to practice his art and, ironically, to avoid the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he spent more than three years in an internment camp, gave up his U.S. citizenship, lost contact with his sister and learned that the rest of his family had been killed in a nuclear attack. One can forgive his anger toward the government.

Hattendorf was shooting her film in the summer of 2001, one shot panning from the iconic World Trade Center to Mirikitani's sidewalk workspace. When the towers fell, she brought him home to avoid the toxic smoke and dust. The old man doesn't comment on current events, but the parallels with his life are all too obvious: a TV commentator discussing the inevitability of racial profiling; a car painted with the slogan "nuke 'em."

As in Brothels and Telegraph Hill, the director gets completely involved in the life of her subject. With her help, Mirikitani gets on social assistance, finds his own apartment and reconnects with his sister and with a more distant relative, poet Janice Mirikitani. Throughout the film, we witness the man's luminous artwork, whose subjects include cats, nature scenes and pictures of the camp, their brilliant colours belying the tragic effect the policy of internment brought to this inquiring, pacifist, intelligent man. HHH

- The Cats of Mirikitani screens at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.) tonight at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., as part of the Hot Docs series. Director Linda Hattendorf will be in attendance at the screenings for question-and-answer sessions. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for details.

cknight@nationalpost.com