Japan features a number of “Cat Islands”, where the feline population usually exceeds the one of human significantly (in Aoshima, the most famous one, the ratio is 6-to-1 for the cats). And who better than Mitsuaki Iwago, a former wildlife photographer, to capture life in one of those islands, in a delightful film based on the manga series “Neko to Jiichan” by the duo known as Nekomaki.
The film actually begins with Tama, one of those cats narrating and introducing himself and his “servant”, the elderly widower Daikichi. After a shot through the eyes of Tama, the film follows a more “generic” path, as we are introduced to the main characters of the film, mostly elderly and cats. Apart from Daikichi, there is Iwao, who cannot stand cats, two elderly ladies who cannot stop bickering with each other, the local doctor, Kentaro and, Michiko, a young woman who has recently moved to the island and has started a rather fashionable cafe that soon becomes everyone’s favorite place. The film begins mostly as a tour guide about the life of cats on the island, but soon romance and drama take center place, as the real circumstances of the inhabitants, and particularly their age, come to the fore, after a dance ball that seems to be the highlight of everyone’s lives.
Mitsuaki Iwago directs a film that retains a very delicate balance between the observational documentary about cats, the local cuisine, and, in general, life in the secluded Japanese islands and the social drama, with his exceptional effort actually carrying the film for the whole of its 103 minutes, despite the relatively difficult main subject. In that fashion, as we watch idyllic locations shot artfully by cinematographer Motomu Ishigaki, we also become “privy” to the fact that the population in these islands is declining, since most young people want to move to the urban centers, leaving just the elderly behind, who actually have very little help with their lives. A death of one of the characters brings this reality to the fore almost harshly, but Iwago’s message remains one of hope, that even in these situations, if the people stay together, they can cope and be happy. At the same time, this dramatic and realist aspect allows Iwago to avoid the reef of idealization about a situation that is anything but, although the general aesthetics of the film retain a happy-go-lucky approach.
Furthermore, the various romances, one for each age demographic it seems, also add to the entertainment the film offers, with particularly Michiko acting as a catalyst for this aspect, both directly and indirectly, as her sudden appearance sends positive ripples to the lives of many. Kou Shibasaki acts the part splendidly, in one of the anchor performances of the film. The second most memorable performance comes from Shinosuke Tachikawa, an award-winning rakoguka (stage storyteller) and novelist, whose acting highlights both the difficulties and the pleasantries of living in such a place, as much as the relationships these people have with their children that have gone away. Of course, Tama is also great.
“Island of Cats” is a soup-for-the-soul film (the focus on the local dishes definitely helps here), which highlights Iwago’s love for his two main themes and the fact that it was made with love and good spirit. Fans of cats will definitely have a blast.