The Island of Cats (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Cats are the prism through which to view an island town and its community life in Iwago Mitsuaki’s film, based on a manga by Nekomaki. Though unnamed in the film, the island is in direct reference to the smattering of small islands across Japan known as “cat islands,” so-called because cats outnumber the human residents. Yes, The Island of Cats is yet another one among a plethora of cat (and dog) movies made in Japan, past and present. And, yes, a number of sequences fall on the corny side and the entire film itself is of a narrative feel-good simpleness of languid pacing that makes it both an effortless and forgettable viewing — cue here the absolutely unnecessary and thus laughable slo-mo scenes of cats in action. Given that Iwago is primarily and most well known for being an animal photographer, the film is therefore laced with such feline-only sequences that are at once cutesy and endearing. Additionally, the film’s narrative parts are held together flimsily and plot points as well as characters are highly predictable at best and underdeveloped at worst. At the same time, a wistfulness and even community activism can be glimpsed here, as “cat islands” are critically indicative of several interconnected phenomena that Japan has been facing for at least the past two decades: small town depopulation, which have lead to ghost towns; an increasingly aging population and the linked social services that they require, or lack, in such small towns; and reverse migration, or the “I-turn,” which both small town municipalities and individuals have been advocating and also increasingly tying (or transforming) into tourism opportunities that give back to the towns.

Several such “I-turners” are present in The Island of Cats:Waka-chan (Emoto Tasuku), the town doctor, and Michiko (Shibasaki Kou), the most recent transplant who opens Cafe Chartreux, much to the surprise of the locals. To elaborate: “I-turners” denotes the “reverse migration” of city dwellers moving to small towns. The term stems from “U-turn,” which in Japan refers to not (just) the vehicular maneuver but (also) the return to one’s hometown after having a go in the big city and getting burnt out, disappointed, bored, or whatever else it may be. “I-turn,” then, strictly marks born-and-raised city residents who become at once repelled by city life and seduced by the countryside to enact a rural relocation. Through Wakamura and Michiko, the film can even be read as actively advocating for the “I-turn.” For at different points in the film, each expresses his/her satisfaction with the rural migration that has given them the opportunity to fully fulfill themselves in ways that they were not able to in the city.

Contrasting with these young “I-turners” are the local residents of this “cat island,” all of a certain age and living solitary at home, with a cat or not. Among the locals is Daikichi (Tatekawa Shinosuke), who is really the film’s central character and perspective: a widow who lives with his cat Tama while his son and family are in Tokyo. (After all, the original Japanese title of the manga and film translates literally to “Cat and Grandpa.”) In contrast to the regrettable corniness of the slo-mo shots of the cat population frolicking about against varied landscapes, Daikichi and Tama’s strolls around town allow the film to show documentary-like snapshots of their small, largely aging but vibrant island population, humans and cats alike. In fact, the duo’s post-breakfast strolls around town bookend the film, in part to provide a before-and-after comparison and convey the and-life-goes-on maxim — not in a saccharine way but a pragmatic, matter-of-fact way.

Unfortunately saccharine, forced, and altogether uninteresting (and by extension somewhat infuriating for being so) in comparison to Daikichi and Tama’s highly charismatic onscreen pairing are the multi-generational tiers of supporting characters that presumably help to round out this portrait of a “cat island” surviving in its own way but instead actually distracts and reveals all too clearly the flimsiness of the narrative. The aforementioned Wakamura and Michiko as non-locals-turned-residents doing good for themselves and everyone around them; Sacchan (Gin Pun Chou) and Iwao (Kobayashi Kaoru) and their unspoken affection for each other in their golden years. The worst of the lot are the two high school students who are not even really characters but rather very rough, unfinished, and deeply uninspired ideas or sketches of characters. Throughout the film are scenes of the pair in bland conversation (and acting) about post-high school life plans, often in isolation from the rest of the characters. They presumably serve as a kind of visual motif to reinforce the precarious nature of “cat islands” and their populations, in that she eventually leaves the island for university in Tokyo and he remains. But constructing scenes of them removed from the context of community greatly contributes to the pair’s monotonic, altogether nonexistent, dimension, and makes one wish for the sequences with cats instead, cornball and all.

One wonders what kind of film Iwago can make with a more documentary bent and free from the constraints of plot.

The Island of Cats was shown at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 20. It will receive an encore screening on July 26.