Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa), a retired schoolteacher, lives with his cat Tama on the same small island where he was born and raised. He’s 70 years old and a widower, with a son (Takashi Yamanaka) who lives in Tokyo and thinks Daikichi should move there to live with him. Tama, on the other hand, is six years and seven months old, or mid-40s in human years, which, he informs us (because of course he can talk), means he’s in the prime of life. Since Daikichi and Tama live on one of Japan’s “cat islands,” where cats outnumber people, that means that Tama’s life never lacks for adventure or romance. Daikichi, in contrast, lives a contented but simple life, his days filled with activities such as taking walks, visiting with his mostly elderly friends, and cooking for himself and Tama. Like a child who can’t understand why his parents are happy with what appears to be an incredibly boring life, Tama is a bit scornful of his elderly buddy (who he refers to as an “old man” and “my servant”) for being contented with what seems to be so little.
On the other hand, days spent strolling in the sun, chatting with friends, and enjoying the natural beauty of your home probably sounds pretty good to a lot of harried city dwellers. The Island of Cats, which received its Quebec premiere at Fantasia 2019, draws on a theme common in contemporary Japanese films: celebration of the simple gifts of life and the beauty and calmness of the non-urbanized areas of Japan. One of the pleasures offered by this film is the chance to simply relax into the slow pace of Daikichi’s life.
Another great pleasure of The Island of Cats are the many beautifully captured shots of cats doing what cats do, which should come as no surprise since first-time director Mitsuaki Iwago is well known as a wildlife photographer (and house cats, of course, are members of the Felidaefamily, which also includes the likes of lions, tigers, and panthers). If you’re a cat lover, this is definitely a film for you; if not, you may find the fairly ordinary and predictable story lines involving the human residents of The Island of Cats to be rather slow going. It’s sort of like Thomas Balmès 2010 film Babies, which was a big hit among people who find babies endlessly fascinating, but not so much among those who don’t.
Not all residents of Daikichi’s home island are elderly—a young doctor (Tasuko Emoto) serves the island residents, and a young woman named Michiko (Ko Shibasaki) has recently moved to the island to start a café. Both are there by choice, finding life on a small island more satisfying than their former lives in the big city. There are a few fairly predictable story lines in this film—interpersonal squabbles, romance, health scares, and the like—but in a context where everything that happens is taken as part of the great circle of life. That’s a welcome change from, say, the typical high school story, where the appearance of a new pimple is treated as if it were the end of the world. And of course there’s one big advantage to having a largely elderly cast of characters—you can always throw in a funeral or two to give the narrative some shape without straining anyone’s sense of plausibility.
It’s not clear where The Island of Cats is taking place, since Japan has quite a few “cat islands.” One candidate is Aoshima, in the Ehime prefecture, which has become a tourist attraction for cat lovers. The story of Aoshima also mirrors the backstory implicit in The Island of Cats: once a prosperous fishing village, today it’s mostly home to a small population of retired people whose children have moved away in pursuit of education and employment. It’s a story that should be familiar to Americans as well, except in our case it’s usually small towns on the mainland suffering from rapid population declines. In The Island of Cats, however, this pattern is not taken as a social problem to be solved, but simply accepted as part of the context in which the characters live their lives. | Sarah Boslaugh
Photo credit: (C)2018 “THE ISLAND OF CATS” Film Partners.