Homeless artist finds a happy ending in "The Cats of Mirikitani"

Chance encounters can change our lives, and that's one of many great and simple lessons to be learned from "The Cats of Mirikitani," a heartwarming but decidedly unsentimental portrait of compassion and artistic expression from New York-based filmmaker Linda Hattendorf.

In 2001, Hattendorf befriended Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, a homeless Japanese-American artist who'd been drawing and painting (mostly colorful sketches of cats) under a grocery-store awning near Hattendorf's SoHo apartment. When the 81-year-old's health was threatened by the dust clouds of Sept. 11, Hattendorf took him in, fostering a mutual bond of trust and friendship that this film conveys with quiet, unassuming nobility.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1920 and wrongfully held at California's Tule Lake internment camp after the outbreak of World War II, Mirikitani (a former Seattleite) expressed his anger toward the U.S. government in his art, in which ever-present cats are a reminder of a pet that comforted a boy who died at Tule Lake — one of thousands of deaths that occurred during the internment of law-abiding Japanese-American citizens.

Hattendorf draws potent parallels between Mirikitani's experience and the ethnic paranoia that victimized many Muslim Americans in the wake of Sept. 11. But "The Cats of Mirikitani" is less concerned with racial politics than with Hattendorf's compassionate effort to secure a safe and comfortable future for her stubbornly independent friend, who reunites with a long-lost sister and returns to Tule Lake in the course of this unexpectedly moving film.

With great warmth and humor, "The Cats of Mirikitani" is a film about healing, but it's also about how human connections are vital to that process. Now that Mirikitani has exhibited his art in galleries across the country (including Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum in May 2006), it's hard to imagine a happier ending. Mirikitani's cats must surely be purring.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Movie review 3 stars


"The Cats of Mirikitani," a documentary featuring Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani. Directed by Linda Hattendorf.

74 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.