Several minutes of cats frolicking playfully on a semi-rural island are followed by an old man happily waking to find his pet cat Tama sleeping on his chest. Any canine chauvinist who may accidentally have wandered into the theater is put on immediate notice that The Island of Cats is unlikely to be the movie for them. Feline fanciers, on the other hand, can settle back for 100+ minutes of a story that will do little to distract them from contemplating the rewards of cat companionship.
No relation to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (despite sharing a Japanese setting), director Mitsuaki Iwagô’s manga adaptation is apparently inspired by two small islands in Japan that have each become known as “Cat Island” for the animals that outnumber the small number of (mostly elderly) human inhabitants. (As the film has no US distributor—it was acquired directly from Japan by the staff at the North Park, who saw it at a Toronto festival last year—I have no background information on it.)
The main human character is Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa), who has lived alone since the death of his wife. His son lives with his family in Tokyo, there being no job opportunities on his island home, and tries to get Daikichi to move in with them. But the former high school principal is content with his regular life and the companionship of Tama.
Daikichi enjoys taking strolls with Tama and visiting his friends, mostly fishermen and other retirees. All are surprised at the arrival of young Michiko (Ko Shibasaki), who opens a café. Michiko encourages Daikichi to explore his love of cooking. A separate story looks at two high school students who will be forced to part after graduation when she goes to the mainland for university while he stays home to help his father’s fishing business.
Why did Michiko move here? Will she fall in love with either of the eligible men her age? Will Daikichi move to Tokyo to live with his son? Will the high school couple survive graduation? Will we ever see a litter box?
If you’re a viewer who needs dramatic resolution, I should warn you right off that you’re not going to get much from this movie. It’s as contemplative as an Ozu movie, albeit one which takes regular breaks to watch cats doing whatever it is they do with their time. How do you make a movie about cats, who are famously resistant to direction? You film them and then build a story around the footage. Or you just decide that an audience that comes to see a movie titled The Island of Cats will be happy enough just to watch without needing a story.
If that describes you, you’ll want to make a double feature of it as the North Park is also presenting the latest edition of CatVideoFest, which is exactly what it sounds like. Even if you spend far too much of your day combing YouTube and other websites for cat videos, this program promises footage that was submitted to or produced for them directly. Proceeds go to benefit cat charities, animal welfare organizations, and shelters.
The films are showing this weekend (Saturday and Sunday) only, with CatVideoFest at 2 and 4:15 pm and The Island Of Catsat 7 pm each day.