The eleventh anniversary of 9/11 will be marked in myriad ways. We are choosing to do so by bringing readers’ attention to an exceptional example of using the imagination to produce a significant and lasting reconciliation. The Cats of Mirikitani, a 2006 documentary by filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, tells the powerful story of artist Jimmy Mirikitani: his internment and loss of American citizenship during World War II, his life of homelessness on the streets of New York City, and his eventual reclamation of family and country. The following interview with Hattendorf was conducted by Pat Matsueda and Nelson Rivera one day before 9/11’s eleventh anniversary.
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The Cats of Mirikitani begins with shots of Jimmy on the streets. We assume that you were filming many things—Jimmy being just one—and that you were drawn to him because of how his life had been shaped by art and by loss. Then, during the filming process, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center happen. The film begins to explore the parallels between the anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII and the paranoia surrounding Middle Eastern populations in the United States after 9/11. Did you have another direction for the film before the attacks? If so, what was it?
People often ask me when I knew I was making a movie. The film started almost accidentally, and evolved organically over time. I first met Jimmy in January of 2001. He was clearly homeless, and seemingly quite old. It was a particularly harsh winter in New York, and he was taking shelter under the awning of a deli not far from my apartment. Despite the cold temperatures, he was energetically drawing pictures of cats late into the night. I was curious and concerned—and I like cats—so I struck up a conversation.
He gave me a drawing and asked me to take a picture of it for him. I was working as an editor of documentary film at the time, and had a small video camera. So I returned with the camera and asked him to tell me about the pictures he was drawing. It turned out he had lots of stories to tell. All kinds of tales spilled out in a jumble and it took me a while to begin to piece together what had happened to him. So I kept visiting. And I found that if I brought the camera, he would talk to me. So at first the camera was just a tool to get him to talk, to find out why he was there, what had happened in his life.
I initially thought I would just make a short video portrait of the life of this homeless artist, and hope that someone would see it and help him.
But as I began to understand what had happened to Jimmy in the past, I realized how significant his story was historically. During WWII, not only was he forcibly removed from his sister’s home in Seattle and sent to a Japanese American internment camp, but he lost countless family members and friends in the bombing of his ancestral city of Hiroshima. I began to explore the link between losing home in such a profound way in the past and his state of homelessness sixty years later. I thought this tale of trauma, loss, and discrimination was the story I was telling.
By 9/11, I had been documenting his life on the streets for nine months and we knew each other well. After the fall of the World Trade Center, I couldn’t bring myself to just watch him coughing in the smoke through the lens of the camera, and I impulsively invited him home.
We were suddenly surrounded by eerie parallels to the climate of the country after Pearl Harbor—only this time a different group looked like the enemy. At that point it became clear that there was an even bigger story here, and that it urgently needed to be told.
Some people would say that your act of empathy is a gift from one artist to another. It set in motion a series of events that enabled Jimmy the individual to reconcile with America the country, to help him regain his country, his family, and so on. That act of empathy is as remarkable as Jimmy’s story. Have audiences responded to or remarked on this aspect of the film?
Documentary filmmaking for me is a way all of us can witness the lives of others, see the world from inside the point-of-view of someone we might not otherwise understand. I enjoy making these stories visible, giving a voice to those who don’t always have the means to tell their tales. The history of those like Jimmy is not often depicted in mainstream media. As an artist, he was drawing pictures of these events because he was determined that this Japanese American history not be ignored or forgotten. I hope my film is an extension of his own desire to be visible. What has been so rewarding is seeing so many audiences around the world embrace the film; people from so many different backgrounds all seem to laugh and cry in the same places in the screenings—proving to me that in the end, we are all one big family, made of the same stuff.
Putting to rest the ghost people, as Jimmy calls them, helped him to (a) bring certain life-shaping memories to a close and (b) move forward in the present. At the beginning, he has no home and is completely alone. At the end of the film, he has his own apartment, and friends are joining him for a celebratory dinner. As a result of Cats, Jimmy’s story and art have reached many people. Does he still draw cats and scenes of the internment camp? Have his drawings changed in subject matter, mood, style? What is the present like for him?
Jimmy’s art changed after we attended the pilgrimage to the Tule Lake camp. When I met him on the street, he was drawing images of the camp over and over again, obsessively sketching the barracks, the mountain, and himself trapped behind a huge fence and gate. When we went back to that same site so many years later, the bus turned a corner and suddenly there was Castle Rock Mountain, exactly as he had been drawing it from memory all these years. As soon as we got off the bus, Jimmy pulled out his sketchpad and started drawing. From that day on, he continued to draw the mountain, but soon the barracks were replaced by tombstones for those who died in camp, and then by cheerful little houses and traffic along the formerly empty road. He drew an open gate, and then the fence disappeared altogether. And he never put himself in the picture again. I believe he literally got out of that landscape by returning there and confronting the past.
Being reunited with a community of people who had experienced what he went through, and wanted to hear about it, was incredibly healing for him. The Tule Lake Committee organizers do an amazing job of creating a safe environment where former internees and their families can talk about that trauma, often for the first time.
At ninety-two, Jimmy shows no sign of slowing down. He recently had a one-man show in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wanted to travel the west coast beforehand. So Masa Yoshikawa [her co-producer] and I took him to another Tule Lake pilgrimage, then to a screening and exhibit in Denver, then to the show in Santa Fe. Jimmy is like a rock star, surrounded by fans wherever he goes. He loves the attention.
Roger Shimomura, the Japanese American artist who is shown in Cats visiting Jimmy on the streets, curated an exhibit of Jimmy’s work which originated at the Wing Luke Museum and now continues to travel around the country. Masa had a book published in Japan depicting Jimmy’s life and art (Peacecats). Several museums carry reproductions of Jimmy’s artwork as well as the Cats DVD, and there is now a children’s book in development using his art as illustrations.
And yes, Jimmy still draws cats. I don’t think that will change. The cats are always popular. I had no idea how many cat lovers there are out there. People from all over the world send us pictures of their cats!
Have there been attempts to connect with Jimmy’s family in Japan? What is his relationship with his American family like now?
Jimmy and I have now met many Mirikitanis, both in the U.S. and Japan. Masa helped me to take Jimmy back to Hiroshima for the August 6 Peace Ceremony in 2007. That was a powerful trip for all of us. The family there unfurled a scroll with the family history that does indeed go back to Samurai times. And we are so glad Jimmy was able to reconnect with his sister Kazuko in Seattle before she passed away this year. We have met Mirikitanis from Hawaii, California, and a cousin right here on Long Island who discovered Jimmy through the film! She visits regularly and baked him a special cake for his birthday last year!
You and Jimmy developed a powerful bond. The scene in which he expresses his worry about your returning late is very touching. Did you ever discuss working on film or art projects together?
Well, yes, sharing a one-room apartment with an eighty-year-old stranger for almost six months was certainly a bonding experience. We had our ups and downs, but in the end, we became like family. It’s been more than ten years since we met, and to this day I still visit Jimmy weekly. He introduces me to people as his granddaughter. We understand each other as artists, and as human beings. I credit him with the idea of making the film, since it was his initial request of “take a picture” that got me started on this adventure! He taught me a lot about the daily process of making art. After 9/11, it was such a scary time, especially here in New York, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. But no matter what was happening, Jimmy just kept drawing. And so I just kept shooting video. I believe making art is how Jimmy processed the many traumas in his life. That has been a good lesson for me.
What films are you working on? How did The Cats of Mirikitani change your life, your ideas about filmmaking? What did it reaffirm about the way you understand and treat people?