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The Cats of Mirikitani

It was a frigid January morning in 2001. Documentary editor Linda Hattendorf was walking down the street. And there he was, asleep under layers of old clothes in front of a Korean deli in SoHo. A familiar situation. “What must that person’s life be like?" The thought flashes through the mind and then disappears like a wisp of breath on the cold wind.

When Hattendorf went back to see Jimmy Mirikitani later in the day, she found the elderly Japanese man scribbling whimsical drawings of cats in a sketchbook. When she offered to buy one, the man declared that he wanted a photograph of himself as payment. Thus began an unlikely but beautifully touching relationship, one that Hattendorf intimately chronicles, from first encounter to Odd Couple cohabitation, in The Cats of Mirikitani.

We learn that Mirikitani was an aspiring artist whose desire to fuse Occidental and Oriental traditions was stayed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the Sacramento-born but Hiroshima-raised Mirikitani was tossed into the Tule Lake internment camp and forced to renounce his U.S. citizenship. If that wasn’t enough, as the war barreled to a close, the young man learned that his childhood home had been decimated by the dropping of the first atomic bomb.

Grief-stricken and bereft of documentation, Mirikitani eventually drifted from job to job, working as a driver, a farmhand and cook, but always returning to the art that kept him sane.

When the 9/11 attacks take place and Lower Manhattan is swallowed up by horror and hysteria, Hattendorf takes Mirikitani into her home. Suddenly, the old man’s stories assume a new level of significance and the filmmaker becomes an active player in her own documented drama.

The Cats of Mirikitani is a brilliant and unpretentious doc that proves yet again that the best projects often develop organically, without massive budgets or complex travel arrangements.

Linda Hattendorf’s The Cats of Mirikitani (USA, 2006, 74 min.) premieres at Doc Soup at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.) on Wednesday, November 8 at 6:30 and 9:15 pm.

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