Initially, one of the challenges that Neko Atsume House seems to face is to how to make a movie from a video game that does not have much goal or narrative. The game from which it is dervived mostly concerns the literal translation of its title – the collection of cats. The game itself has no context. Like most recent casual mobile games, its meaning is limited to its interaction with its user.
Masatoshi Kurakata’s adaptation tells the story of Masaru Sakumoto (Atsushi Ito), once a celebrated writer but now challenged to produce a new hit. He has been asked by one of his agency’s editors to add a plot twist to his literary series which he is not really fond of – to turn one of his characters into a zombie. The narrative itself is a simple one: it is about a writer in slump. More often, films about artists, writers or filmmakers tend to get self-absorbed with their discussions of art and personal craft. Thankfully, this film does not. Rather, it is about real consequences of having writer’s block when one depends on writing as a means of making a living.
The film is direct on this – Masaru’s choice is to write or die. He is trapped within the sphere of free-trade competition where it forces him to turn incorporate the undead. Pressured by the need to produce new work without compromising, he moves to an old house in the countryside to refresh his mind. Masaru’s strategic retreat causes him to deal with his new home’s old borders – the cats, the furball highlight of the movie. The film focuses on this interaction between Masaru and the cats while he also tries to solve his own conflicts.
All throughout the movie, we are guided based on how Masaru organizes his life. Earlier parts of the film work like most light Japanese comedies: through misunderstandings and low-key clumsiness for punchlines. This makes the comedy feel rather safe and innocent: for example, in the film, Masaru finds the new house under the guidance of what he thought was a fortune-teller, and at his new residence, the cats are at first a disturbance. But observing their behavior leads him to reorganize his manners of living.
The cat collection, which was the aim of the game on which the film was based on, never really serves any significant aspect but segments from the cat collection arc of this adaptation provided a point of reflection for the characters. At this point, Masaru’s story became more meditative as he becomes more obsessed with the cats. Though not meditative enough to reflect on the manner in which people are made to consume more products just to attract or pet a cat.
On a deeper reflection, what Masaru is going through is actually quite hard, especially if taken on the context of Japanese employment situation. While recently, Japan’s unemployment rate hits its lowest point in more than two decades, the situation states that this is due to the nation’s shrinking population and working force. Not to mention, most jobs available are temporary and low-paying. This bleak situation is balanced with the interaction between Masaru and the cats. This plot-mechanism reminded me of Yuji Nakae’s Hotel Hibiscus (2002) where the issue of the colonization of Okinawa was being overshadowed by a heartening story of a family living in a mixed culture.
While being less about the game, Neko Atsume House remains an interesting game adaptation. Rather than simply transfering the game, the film focuses more on who might be playing the game, making it open and friendly to a wider audience. However, how cats attract humans and how humans attract their attention in return, not to metion why would one actually play a game with just this context, still remains a mystery.
Neko Atsume House is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Sunday July 16 at Japan Society at 12pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.