Nine Lives: Jimmy Mirikitani's Journey

Rob DeWalt
07/13/2012

A Little more than a decade ago, filmmaker Linda Hattendorf and homeless Japanese American artist Tsutomu “Jimmy” Mirikitani first crossed paths in New York City. Hattendorf was immediately taken aback by Mirikitani’s colorful, expressionistic crayon-and-ink drawings of cats, and she began to follow him around the streets of New York with a camera—until Sept. 11, 2001, when those same streets came to resemble Mirikitani’s family’s hometown of Hiroshima in the aftermath of World War II.

In The Cats of Mirikitani, Hattendorf’s 2006 directorial debut, audiences learn that Mirikitani’s devotion to his art began when he was 25, while interned as an enemy of the United States during World War II at the squalid Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Newell, California. The Sacramento-born Mirikitani watched helplessly as many Japanese Americans, including women and children, suffered and died. While there, Mirikitani befriended a boy who loved cats and played with them in the camp. The artist drew pictures of cats for the boy—before he too was counted among the dead.

The events of 9/11 sparked Mirikitani to come to grips with his own past and to seek out loved ones lost or gone missing during the war and internment, and much of that journey is reflected in his drawings, which are on exhibit at Eight Modern through Sunday, Aug. 5 – one day before the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At his advanced age, Mirikitani doesn’t participate in interviews. Pasatiempo caught up with Hattendorf to discuss the artist and her film.

Pasatiempo: First of all, how is Jimmy’s health and happiness? I know he lived with you following 9/11. Does he live at a home?

Linda Hattendorf: Jimmy just celebrated his 92nd birthday. He doesn’t take any medication and credits his good health to eating fish and seaweed. He has been in an assisted-living facility in New York for 10 years now. He’s still making art, usually late at night, when it’s quiet.

Pasa: When you met Jimmy, what compelled you to invite him back to your home after 9/11? Did you learn some of his history before making that decision?

Hattendorf: I met Jimmy in January 2001. It was a particularly harsh winter in New York, with very cold temperatures and lots of snow, and he was taking shelter near a Korean deli not far from my apartment in Soho. He gave me a drawing of a cat and asked me to take a picture of it for him. I returned with a video camera and asked him to tell me the stories in his pictures. All kinds of tales spilled out in a jumble, and it took me a while to begin to piece together what had happened to him.

Pasa: How much did you know about Japanese internment camps before meeting Jimmy? Were there particular things you learned from him that shocked or surprised you?

Hattendorf: I learned much more from Jimmy than from history books. I think the most stunning revelation was that thousands of people signed papers renouncing their U.S. citizenship. The courts eventually ruled that they had signed under duress while incarcerated, and thus their renunciations were null and void. But it took years to restore their citizenship; and Jimmy was literally a mna without a country for years. The government called these renunciants “Native American aliens,” since they had been born in the United States but were now considered illegal aliens.

Pasa: Jimmy’s attitude in the film hints that he was a bit annoyed or at least distrustful. Were there off-screen challenges in getting him to open up?

Hattendorf: Jimmy is not camera-shy. In fact, when I befriended him on the streets, I used the camera to get him to tell me more about why he was out there. If I had the camera, he would tell me stories about his artwork and his life. If I visited him without the camera, he would scold me and remind me to bring it next time. He was eager to talk about his past—especially the camps and the bombing of Hiroshima. I realized that he was drawing pictures of these events because they are so seldom represented in mainstream media. He wanted to make sure this chapter of history was not forgotten. But, yes, he was initially distrustful. I think he had been made to feel like an outsider for so long that he finally just gave up on trusting anyone. It took a long time to rebuild his trust in others and in our government.

Pasa: How did Jimmy cope with the 9/11 tragedy?

Hattendorf: Jimmy responded to the 9/11 as he did to the many other traumas in his life. He just kept making art.

Pasa: How exactly did Jimmy wing up on the streets?

Hattendorf: Jimmy became nomadic after the internment camp. He made his way to New York to pursue his career as an artist and was provided shelter by the Buddhist church there. They also trained him to be a cook, and he spent many years cooking in summer camps and country clubs from upstate New York to Florida. Eventually he became a live-in chef for a wealthy man on Park Avenue. When that man died, Jimmy was suddenly without a home or a job. Because of his mistrust in the government, he never applied for the Social Security benefits he was entitled to. Within a couple of years, he was living in Washington Square Park, selling his art to survive.

Pasa: It’s interesting to look at the colorful work Jimmy creates and to juxtapose it against the bleakness of wartime in Japan, the ash-covered streets of New York, and the internment camp. It’s as if line and color were coping mechanisms. Jimmy used them to forget—and later in life to remember again.

Hattendorf: I think making art is what helped Jimmy process the many traumas he survived. It was the one thing no one could take away from him.