Have you heard the one about the ex-boxer who lost his cat? After several days of searching, Hideaki (Yosuke Kubozuka) spots his pet feline Maru being cradled in the arms of Ikumi (Kenji Furuya), a punk who has renamed her Lily and is already too besotted to let go. Sakaki seems to be setting up these men – who will come to call one another “Maru” and “Lily” based on their preferred names for the cat – as rivals, but they will soon become allies instead.
Their paths cross a few days later in a café where Hideaki is freelancing as a bodyguard to single mother Saeko (Yui Ichikawa), who requires protection from ex-boyfriend Tamaki (Hiroshi Shinagawa). Disturbed by his violent tendencies, particularly towards her young son, Saeko has arranged to meet Tamaki hoping that he will agree to draw a line under their relationship, but he won’t take “no” for an answer and is threatening to humiliate Saeko by circulating erotic photographs taken with his cellphone. When Tamaki’s inability to handle rejection causes an outburst, Hideaki lurches into action with assistance from Ikumi, who by chance often frequents the same establishment for lunch.
So far, we’re in deadpan buddy movie territory with Hideaki and Ikumi putting their bickering aside to work out what is best for Maru. Ikumi works as an auto mechanic and is as stuck in a rut as Hideaki, who is plagued by severe headaches from his boxing days but both have a determined outlook despite being shortchanged in life. Their shared protective instinct towards the cat extends to the vulnerable Saeko when it becomes apparent that Tamaki is truly dangerous, but his stalker behaviour is actually the least of her worries since she a scandalous past in Tokyo that involves underworld heavies and a powerful politician is about to catch up with her. This takes developments into the murky realm of film noir as Hideaki and Ikumi escort Saeko to the capital – dubbed “the city of shitheads” by Ikumi – to help her resolve outstanding matters.
If it seems far-fetched that a pair of well-meaning nobodies would become embroiled, however unwittingly, in a convoluted conspiracy plot, director Hideo Sakaki endeavours to keep it real by delivering flashes of brutal violence with the same unfussy, everyday approach as the punchy banter. In this respect, Alley Cat exudes an off-the-cuff ordinariness that at once grounds its absurdities and makes one root for its central duo who, if not entirely hapless, are certainly in well over their heads. Aside from a shared common decency, it’s the washed out mundanity of the daily grind that prompts Hideaki and Ikumi to put their lives at risk to help a woman they barely know since neither otherwise has anything better to do. It’s perhaps surprising with all the bravado on display that Saeko develops into a layered character whose unfortunate circumstances are not merely used as a device to get her would-be protectors out of their slump. Indeed, Saeko’s attempt at reinvention through a second ‘life’ makes her as much of an ‘alley cat’ as perpetual scrappers Hideaki and Ikumi.
As with any buddy movie, though, it’s the chemistry between the guys that sets the tone. From their first scene together, Kubozuka and Furuya hit a natural, playfully combative rhythm, which grows into a genuine bond between two graduates of the school of hard knocks. There’s no need for any “I love you, man” moments in this grittily humorous shaggy cat story which reserves any expression of sentiment for Maru’s close-ups.
Alley Cat is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Saturday July 15 at Japan Society at 4:15pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.