{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Cats of Mirikitani

The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about a homeless artist of Japanese origin, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, living and working on the streets of New York near the twin towers. After 9/11, Linda Hattendorf, who was making a documentary on him at the same time and has become his friend, took him to her flat in the hope that she can help him get some benefits like Social Security, SSI, and housing. Slowly Hattendorf learns about the his past and his art, and why he draws same things over and over again - Childhood in Hiroshima, concentration camps, a mountain and a lake with prison cells in front of them, red flames, peeking whimsical cats. The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about past, the expressive power of art as a voice and the healing power of human connection and mutual sharing of experiences.

Jimmy Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California but was raised in Hiroshima, Japan. As a young man, he refused to serve the army (he says "he was not afraid but he was born to be a great artist") and came to US to study art and to become a visual artist, who will as he puts, "combine the oriental and western art forms". But during WWII, after Pearl Harbor, people (including US Citizens) of Japanese Ancestry are taken to camps (there is a controversy in the terminology here too, some call then "relocation camps", some call them "internment camps" and others "concentration camps". Whatever be the case wiki says "A number of persons died or were permanently injured for lack of medical care, and several were killed by sentries". There is a documentary on the other such camp called Topaz). Mirikitani was interned to Tule lake camp in California (which was a segregation center where those deemed "disloyal") and was cut from his family (his sister was moved to a different camp, Minidoka camp in Idaho). After the camp, the interns were moved to a frozen food manufacturing plant near Bridgeton New Jersey for the forced labor. Later, they were released and returned their citizenships, but Mirikitani never received his letter for citizenship because he has moved so often. In his last job as a live-in cook, when his last employer died, he was suddenly left without job and home.

All this trauma and pain from camp to homelessness has, by now settled in the old man to bitterness for this world. His contempt for US can be trivial when heard (after hearing the Bush's speech after 9/11 and what is being done Arab Americans he says "that’s what they do"), but given his past, looks justifiable. But all these years, Mirikitani continued to make art, and we can say that it became a therapy for him to deal with his past. His childhood in Hiroshima, memories of the camp (especially of the kid who died in the camp. He used to like cats and used to follow Mirikitani), Hiroshima bombing that wiped his mother's family, separation from his sister, became subjects of his art. With Hattendorf's help, Mirikitani was able to find some of his lost things - his US citizenship, his sister but most importantly a visit to the Tule Lake Camp where he met other people who came there to commemorate the past, and where Mirikitani shared some of his memories of the camp with others. The last shot of the documentary shows stoically satisfied Mirikitani sitting on the return bus from the Tule Lake Camp pilgrimage. It’s a truly satisfying moment for us, as was for Mirikitani.

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