Japanese cinema, just like manga and anime, consists of many sub-genres. While we have the food-related cinema, with Juzi Itami’s Tampopo (1985) as prime example, we also have a cinema dedicates to men’s most precious friend: the cat, like Kon Ichikawa’s I am a cat (1975) and more recent narratives like Neko Samurai (2014) and Neko Atsume House (2017).
And now Mitsuaki Iwago adds another cat-narrative, a narrative based on the manga series “Neko to Jiichan” by Nekomaki, to the library of Japanese cat cinema.
Since his wife died, Daikichi Haruyama (Shinosuke Tatekawa) has been living online with his cat Tama-san (Tama). Like every morning, after saying his prayers at the family shrine, Daikichi goes for a walk with his cat.
At one point during his walk, he meets his childhood friend Iwao (Kaoru Kobayashi) at the local harbor. When Daikichi and Iwao observe three older ladies wondering about a new construction on the island, Tama-san runs off by himself. On his adventure he meets Mi-chan, a female cat, and, eventually, encounters Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), a woman who recently moved from Tokyo to the island in order to open a cafe.
The Island of Cats is a narrative, as the title implies, where cats form an integral part of the plot. While there are many cats present in the narrative space, the narrative focuses generally on Tama-san and his master. A fun element in the narrative, an element by which the narrative opens, is the playful way by which Daikichi vocalize Tama’s voice, a vocalization clearly echoing Natsume Soseki’s I’m A Cat (1972). While this could have just been a mere reference to this monumental work of literature, the narrative uses this reference to underline the centrality of the heartwarming and touching bond between Daikichi and Tama-san as well as to evoke an essential truth, a truth cat-owners will fondly recognize: The fact that being the owner of a cat also implies to be the servant of the cat, to be subjected to the whims of his majesty the cat.
The close bond between Daikichi and Tama is also underlined by the natural way in which Daikichi talks to his cat (Narra-note 1). While some people might find this strange, this subtle but important element will make every cat-owner fondly bring his own experiences into remembrance. Due to the centrality of Daikichi’s and Tama-san’s walks, we are, as spectator, given a pleasing insight – as the seasons pass by – in the social fabric of the town and the unhurried life the islanders have – a life where cats are never far away. The social fabric of the town comes to life by the multitude of minor narrative threads, e.g. the decision of Asumi (Yuki Katayama) decision to go to an university in Tokyo and the impact this decision has on Satoshi (Shono Hayama), the ongoing bickering between the reclusive Tamiko (-) and another elderly woman (Toshie Kobayashi), and the insisting background-tension between Daikichi and his worried son Tsuyoshi (Takashi Yamanaka) – a tension that provides the narrative with a frame. There is furthermore also some subtle romance mixed into the narrative’s unfolding, like Tama-san’s ‘romantic’ interest in Mi-chan, the romantic interest of local doctor Kentaro (Tasuku Emoto) in Michiko, and Iwao’s romantic interest in Sachi (Gin Pun Chou).
While the various narratives are intertwined in a natural and satisfying way for the most part, the narrative ultimately becomes somewhat episodic in nature as the narrative nears the end. This is caused by the fact that the narrative losing its firm narrative grasp on intermingling narratives as such. Luckily, this loosening does not halt the narrative from succeeding to frame a satisfying conclusion to this slice-of-life narrative.
Through the many interactions Daikichi has with his fellow islanders, the narrative space of Island of Cats also becomes a place marked by the comedy of the every-day life, for example Daikichi joking with Iwao, the reaction of the island’s doctor when seeing fish-eyes, … etc. What makes these comedic moments fun and at the same time heartwarming is the very fact that the comedic potential of these moments originate from the natural interactions as such – be it interactions between humans or between humans and felines.
The Island of Cats’ main narrative thread concerns how Michiko and her newly opened café subtly rewrites the social fabric of town-life in general and Daichiki and Tama-san’s life in particular. This narrative thread brings another theme, a theme that was already lingering earlier on, explicit to the fore: the theme of Japanese cuisine. Due to Diakichi’s meeting with Michiko, the theme of Japanese cuisine as a prime social aspect and the joy of cooking is explicitly brought into play in the narrative’s fabric. Another aspect important to the narrative, an aspect not unrelated to the theme of Japanese cuisine, is the importance of and the appreciation Daikichi has for his deceased wife, Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka). This is not only underlined in his speech and comportment, but also visually emphasized with flashbacks (Narra-note 2, Colour-note 1).
One might ask oneself where this narrative aims to convey. In truth, the various narrative threads, despite not being without conflict and sadness – not without a swirl of negativity, the experience of loss, that forms part of daily life, ultimately emphasize the fulfilling happiness one can attain from an unhurried position in life as well as underlining the importance of cats for one’s mental health (Narra-note 3). In other words, The Island of Cats, by offering a detailed fabric of interactions and framing the positive effect of one person’s appearance, emphasizes the beauty of a unhurried life (Narra-note 4).
The cinematography of Island of Cats consists of a blend of fixes and fluid moving shots. In the very opening sequence, a sequence painting a peaceful existence between cat and human, of the narrative one can already discern how shots are going to be used. Fluid moving shots introduce the general setting, i.e. the island, a setting that becomes more specified by the (semi-)fixed shots that highlight certain places, narrative spaces, on the island. (Semi-)fixity is applied to frame the various characters and the wide range of adorable cats in the narrative. The central presence of the cats on the island as introduced by fixed shots is further highlighted by fluid following shots (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3).
The Island of Cats boasts a lot of beautiful and peaceful shots of cat, a wide range of shots of cats in various positions, of cats interacting with humans or other felines, or cats doing various things. These shots are always pleasing and heartwarming. Especially if you are a cat lover, not one cat-shot will feel unnecessary or misplaced – each shot has, as a matter of fact, the power to touch our precious memories of our precious feline masters. Let us also note in passing that it is especially the adorable Tama that steals the show.
The peacefulness of The Island of Cats is further emphasized by the various music pieces in the narrative. In other words, by infusing a laidback atmosphere into the narrative spaces, the calm nature and the leisurely pace of the life of the islanders is given a sensible musical support. The sound-design of The Island of Cats is great as well, especially when approaching the cats as such. Expect to hear at various moments the peaceful purring of the cats and the often annoying but ever touching meowing of cats.
The Island of Cats is a great narrative – and probably this year’s best cat narrative. By painting an truthful image and sensitive narrative, cat-owners cannot but fondly recognize the various particularities of a human’s relation with his feline friend. Besides providing heartwarming cat-imagery, The Island of Cats also paints, by providing a varied palette of narratives, the beauty of every-day life, an every-day life full of small moments of happiness, but alas also marked by sadness and experiences of loss.
Narra-note 1: Diakichi’s son, for that matter, also talks to his cat.
Narra-note 2: When Daikichi cooks following his late wife’s recipe, the recipe is made explicit by making his late wife’s voice narrate the recipe for us.
Narra-note 3: Loss has multiple meanings such as loss of loved ones and ‘loss’ of physic wellbeing.
Narra-note 4: The narrative also touches upon the fact that one can find relational pleasure in the bickering as such.
Colour-note 1: Flashbacks are ever framed with a more soften palate, as to emphasize the fondness of the memory.
Cine-note 1: At certain points in the narrative slow-motion following shots and slow-motion (semi-)fixid shots are also applied.
Cine-Note 2: At certain points in the narrative semi-pov shots are used to frame Tama’s perspective.
Cine-note 3: Spatial moving shots are, in some cases, also used to direct the attention of the spectator. In most cases, these shots shift the spectator’s attention to Daikichi and Tama-san or from Tama-chan to Daikichi.
Moreover, fluid circling moving shots are applied in framing in the dance festival.
General-note 1: Let us note that the cat’s opening words are very similar to the sentence that opens Natsume Soseki’s book. The position that Tama positions himself in is thus also one of a noble character.