The title may suggest a wildlife documentary, but “The Cats of Mirikitani” is entirely, vibrantly human. When, early in 2001, the New York filmmaker Linda Hattendorf befriends the homeless artist who works beneath the awning of a grocery store near her SoHo apartment, she has no way of knowing where the friendship will lead — nor how their shared experience of one national tragedy will sharpen the legacy of another more than half a century earlier.
Born in Sacramento in 1920, raised in Hiroshima and interned in an American camp after he returned to the United States to avoid Japanese military service, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani relives his painful past with vivid paintings of internment huts, blood-red skylines and the wide-eyed cats that comforted a child who died while interned. When Jimmy’s health is threatened by the dust clouds of Sept. 11, Ms. Hattendorf moves him into her home, and what began as an interesting portrait of an outsider artist becomes a fascinating story of injustice and endurance.
Parking her camera on the floor of her cramped apartment, Ms. Hattendorf tries to connect this proud octogenarian visitor with long-lost relatives and strained social services. The result is a movie that evolves naturally from the filmmaker’s compassion for her subject; as much as possible, she remains off camera, and her immense act of charity is never permitted to become the film’s focus. Instead this remarkable documentary offers a brief but satisfying look at a defiantly self-sufficient life.
THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI
Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed by Linda Hattendorf; in English and Japanese, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Ms. Hattendorf and Masa Yoshikawa; edited by Keiko Deguchi and Ms. Hattendorf; music by Joel Goodman; produced by Mr. Yoshikawa and Ms. Hattendorf; released by Lucid Dreaming Inc. At Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 74 minutes. This film is not rated.