The Cats of Mirikitani

May 08, 2007


About the Documentary

“Make art not war” is Jimmy Mirikitani’s motto. This 80-year-old Japanese American artist was born in Sacramento and raised in Hiroshima, but by 2001 he is living on the streets of New York with the twin towers of the World Trade Center still ominously anchoring the horizon behind him. What begins as a simple vérité portrait of one homeless man will become a rare document of daily life in New York in the months leading up to 9/11. How deeply these two stories will be intertwined cannot yet be imagined. This is the story of losing “home” on many levels.

How did Mirikitani end up on the streets? The answer is in his art. As tourists and shoppers hurry past, he sits alone on a windy corner in Soho drawing whimsical cats, bleak internment camps, and the angry red flames of the atomic bomb. When a neighboring filmmaker stops to ask about Mirikitani’s art, a friendship begins that will change both their lives. In sunshine, rain, and snow, she returns again and again to document his drawings, trying to decipher the stories behind them. The tales spill out in a jumble — childhood picnics in Hiroshima, ancient samurai ancestors, lost American citizenship, Jackson Pollock, Pearl Harbor, thousands of Americans imprisoned in WWII desert camps, a boy who loved cats…. As winter warms to spring and summer, she begins to piece together the puzzle of Mirikitani’s past. One thing is clear from his prolific sidewalk displays: he has survived terrible traumas and is determined to make his history visible through his art.

September 11 thrusts Mirikitani once again into a world at war and challenges the filmmaker to move from witness to advocate. In the chaos following the collapse of the World Trade Center, she finds herself unable to passively photograph this elderly man coughing in the toxic smoke, and invites him into her small apartment. In this uncharted landscape, the two navigate the maze of social welfare, seek out family and friends, and research Jimmy’s painful past — finding eerie parallels to events unfolding around them in the present.

Discovering that Jimmy is related to Janice Mirikitani, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, is the first in a series of small miracles along the road to recovery.

Jimmy’s story comes full circle when he travels back to the West Coast to reconnect with a community of former internees at a healing pilgrimage to the site of his internment camp Tule Lake, and to see the sister he was separated from half a century ago.

Blending beauty and humor with tragedy and loss, The Cats of Mirikitani, is an intimate exploration of the lingering wounds of war and the healing power of art.

The Filmmakers

Linda Hattendorf
The Cats of Mirikitani is Linda Hattendorf’s directorial debut. It won the Audience Award at its premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and many more prizes in festivals around the world, including the Norwegian Peace Film Award and Best Picture in Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes section. Hattendorf has worked in the New York documentary community for more than a decade; her editing work has aired on PBS, A&E and the Sundance Channel as well as in theatrical venues and many festivals. She edited the award-winning documentary 7th Street, Christina Lundberg’s On the Road Home: A Spiritual Journey Guided by Remarkable Women, Julia Pimsleur’s Brother Born Again and Nancy Recant’s Jin Shin Jyutu. She was associate editor on Frontline‘s Emmy-winning season premiere The Choice ’96 and Barbara Kopple’s Bearing Witness, contributing editor on POV’s American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii, a cameraperson on William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2 and a researcher for the Ken Burns series The West. She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and holds degrees in literature, art history and media studies.

Masa Yoshikawa
Producer Masa Yoshikawa is a New York-based producer, writer, producer’s representative and U.S.-Japan coordinator with extensive film and televison experience in the U.S. and Japan. He has worked for American and Japanese feature films in various capacities such as production supervisor and production coordinator (including Lost in Translation) as well as for many TV productions for Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) and NHK among others.


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