Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Isshin Inudo, 2008)

Gu Gu the cat posterJapanese cinema has long been in love with the local flavour movie. It may be true that many otherwise fantastic examples of the small subgenre have a “sponsored by the tourist board” aesthetic, but then the pure “furusato” love is usually genuine enough and often proves infectious. Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Gu Gu Datte Neko de Aru) is a case in point in its fierce determination to sell the benefits of trendy Tokyo suburb Kichijoji – an upscale bohemian neighbourhood well known for being home to artists and dreamers who take care to foster the kind of hometown spirit you wouldn’t normally associate with city living. The film is also, however, the story of a struggling middle-aged mangaka who is forced to deal with a long delayed existential crisis after her elderly cat passes away.

Ça Va had been living with Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) for the last 15 years but passed away while she and her team were working flat out on a special Christmas issue. Asako is of course devastated and not least because she feels guilty that perhaps she was too busy to notice that Ça Va was ill until it was too late. According to her assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno), Asako’s career had been faltering even before Ça Va passed away – the Christmas issue had been the only thing she’d produced all year leaving her team of assistants out of pocket and worried for the future. Grief-stricken as she is, Asako eventually decides to get a new cat, Gu Gu, enabling a rebirth in her professional as well as personal lives.

Based on an autobiographical story by mangaka Yumiko Oshima, Gu Gu the Cat wastes no time in reminding us that being a mangaka is a precarious business. Asako is well acclaimed as an artist and has inspired countless young women with her shojo manga (Naomi not least among them) but is still pressed into working insane hours to meet publication deadlines and is constantly badgered by her publishing company to provide new material. Her mother (Chieko Matsubara), meanwhile, just wants her to settle down and get married before it’s “too late”.

Asako’s mother’s nagging may seem like the usual kind of conservatism that is a little embarrassed by an unmarried middle-aged woman, as well as with the idea of a woman having a career and especially in manga which is a “popular” art and therefore less respectable than literature or painting. It is also, however, born of knowing her daughter and seeing that there is a part of her that hasn’t quite matured thanks to working on manga all her adult life which has left her feeling isolated and lonely in a way a cat might not be able to satisfy. This is perhaps why potential love interest Seiji (Ryo Kase) describes all her manga as “sad”, and why Asako is somewhat uncomfortable with being treated as a “famous author” rather than as a person.

Gu Gu the cat takes a back seat to most of the action (as cats are want to do) but does help engineer a meeting with Seiji who, despite being much younger than Asako, begins to reawaken in her a sense of desire if not exactly for romance then perhaps for life. Following a familiar pattern, however, Asako re-channels that desire into her manga – coming up with an idea in which a teenager suddenly grows old, neatly mirroring her sudden sense of having become “a woman of a certain age” overnight without really noticing. Having lost Ça Va, Asako attempts to come to terms with lost time in accepting that many choices have already been made and opportunities lost. In that sense there is something sad in Asako’s decision to remain alone in knowing that in the end she lost love because she was too timid to claim it, but then, the answer isn’t new romance but an acceptance of being happy in the present in the knowledge that things change and people leave but it will all be OK in the end.

Based on Oshima’s real experiences, Inudo’s film takes a turn for the melodramatic towards its conclusion which feeds back into his “live every day” message but is perhaps a little heavy for the cheerful slice of life drama surrounding it. Likewise, his strange decision to sell the joys of Kichijoji (which appear to be many) through an American Eikaiwa teacher narrating a journey through the area in the manner of a TV programme aimed at tourists is a particularly strange one which in no way benefits from its surreal plot revelation. Nevertheless, Gu Gu the Cat is a warm and affectionate tribute to this seemingly warm and quirky area which acts as a kind of coming of age story for its middle-aged heroine who, in a sense, births herself in coming to an acceptance that life goes on and the best you can do go along with it for as long as you can.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Mitsuaki Iwago, 2019)

Island of Cats Poster“The best is yet to come” resolves 70-year-old Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa) at the conclusion of The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Neko to Jiichan). Inspired by the manga by the appropriately named Nekomaki, the debut feature from wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago is a decidedly laidback affair, neatly fusing two genres of Japanese comfort cinema – cats and cuisine. It’s also another in the recent run of films deliberately targeting the older generation in its quiet celebration of community and late life serenity, but it’s very existence is also perhaps a mild dig at cold and frenetic Tokyo which can’t help but pale next to the island’s inherent charms.

Daikichi has lived alone with his cat, Tama (who neatly introduces himself using the exalted “Wagahai” in a reference to Soseki’s famous novel), since his wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) passed away two years previously. He has a grown-up son (Takashi Yamanaka) who is married with a teenage daughter of his own in Tokyo, but mostly spends his life hanging out with his old friends and playing with the island’s many cats. His peaceful days begin to change, however, when a pretty middle-aged (“young” to Daikichi and his friends) woman, Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), arrives from Tokyo and opens a cafe – the island’s first. In fact, the older generation find the cafe slightly intimidating, thinking such modern innovations are only for the youngsters, but are finally tempted in when directly invited by Michiko herself who serves up a selection of cream sodas and tasty ice creams in addition to slightly more rarefied treats like fish carpaccio.

In contrast to many an island drama, though the bulk of the population is older there are a fair few youngsters around and plenty of children too – at least enough to keep the local school open and the ferries running frequently. It is true however that most leave when they come of age either heading off to university on the mainland or seeking their fortunes in the cities. Nevertheless, the despite the absence of family the elderly are well cared for by the recently arrived young doctor (Tasuku Emoto) who takes his responsibility extremely seriously and is grateful for the opportunity to come to the island because it’s enabled him to become the kind of doctor he always wanted to be.

Michiko, meanwhile, has come to the island in search of relief from city life which she felt was gradually crushing her. An instant hit with the local cats as well as Daikichi and his friends, her presence adds a new energy to the island as the older generation start to enjoy both trying new things they thought perhaps were “inappropriate” when you’re old, and revisiting those they missed out on in their youth. Friends reconnect, bickering is exposed as an odd kind of affection, and cats just generally make everything better. The island may be dull compared to the bright lights of Tokyo, but it has its charms and those that live there are one big family taking care of each other and enjoying the laidback rhythms of coastal life.

Daikichi’s son, visiting when he can, is keen for him to come and live with the family in Tokyo but he and Tama are happy enough on the island just muddling through the way they always have surrounded by friends and happy memories. Reconnecting with his late wife through the recipe book she left behind, he resolves to learn a few dishes of his own – filling the rest of the pages with recipes learned from Michiko, his friends, newspapers and TV, determined to go on learning as long as he can. Sharing his life with others on the island, Daikichi too finds a new zest for living even as his days pass much as before, resolving that there is still plenty more to enjoy as he enters his twilight years. Gentle and mellow in the extreme, The Island of Cats is not promising much more than living up to its name but does its best to sell the charms of serene island life as Daikichi and his friends rejoice in the simple pleasures of shared cuisine and admiring “everybody’s” cats as they continue to do pretty much whatever they please while warming the hearts of the kindly islanders as they enjoy their days of fun and sunshine with nary a care in the world.


The Island of Cats screens in New York on July 20 as part of Japan Cuts 2019. It will also screen in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 28.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cats in Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Shinichi Nakada, 1989)

vlcsnap-2017-01-06-00h41m34s475Looking at the poster and its “A Most “Oshare” Movie” tag line, you’d assume Cats of Park Avenue to be very stylish kind of story, about some fashionable felines living on an uptown street comparable to the famous New York landmark. The title is entirely coincidental as it’s a literal translation of the Japanese and just means the cats live on a street near the park. These cats are full on alley cats, scrappy and free, roaming the rooftops of Shibuya and not giving a damn about whatever it is cats are supposed to do. Ostensibly a throw away young adult movie about a group of dance students and their obsession with a gang of local street cats, Cats of Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Koendori no Nekotachi) takes on a surprisingly individualist message as the virtues of freedom and validity of life outside the mainstream are resolutely reinforced through cute animation and nonsensical musical sequences.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on a local dance troupe who are about to put on a musical show inspired by the life of the their local cats (no, they don’t seem to be aware it’s been done already). Each of the main girls is lined up with a corresponding alley cat with whom she shares a degree of affinity and, oddly enough, the cats themselves are allowed to take centre stage for large parts of the film as they play, fight, and make improbable leaps from building to building.

Aside from the show, the main narrative kicks off when a wealthy old lady one of the girls works as a baby sitter for starts to get paranoid that one of the alleycats is after her prized kitty Marilyn. When she thinks Marilyn has gone to the dark side, she immediately kicks her out as “dirty” and starts on a mass “purification” programme for the surrounding area to eliminate all of the stray cats, including our beloved heroes. The “Cat Busters” are called in as a kind of storm trooper-esque exectution squad complete with a strange scanning machine which works out if a cat is nasty or nice and dumps the unwanted ones right into the furnace. The cats, however, are about ready to fight back and free their friends from certain doom.

The cats have to save themselves in the end, aided by the villainess’ young son who wields the weight of his own privilege to help them. The girls are aligned with the cats in ways which are intended to be positive – emphasising the freedom they would like to have, the strength and daring, but are contrasted with the more “conservative” attitude of the film’s villain who wants everything to be “clean”, with “cats” confined to the home in a kind of golden cage. It is interesting in that sense that the evil instigator is herself a woman, wealthy and successful with a young son but seemingly unmarried. Despite living outside of the mainstream, it is she who seeks to grade the cats according to their usefulness and destroy the ones which don’t meet her criteria. The girls however, perhaps talking for themselves, insist the cats need to be free and keeping them indoors as pets where they don’t want to be not only makes them miserable but deprives them of the right of being what they are.

Intended for a very specific audience, Cats of Park Avenue cuts between images of these quite odd looking cats doing what they do, to large scale dance sequences and infrequent animation. The human cast are not the focus of the film and the character arcs of the real life girls take a back seat to those of their feline counter parts but they do at least get the opportunity to show off their singing and dancing credentials. The final show does indeed bear a significant resemblance to that other well known musical, but is much more cheerfully silly despite the heavy, if surreal, events which have previously taken place. A strange odyssey back to 80s consumerist pop, Cats of Park Avenue is unlikely to find much of an audience among modern viewers but is a kind of interesting time capsule of the lower end of populist movies in the late 1980s.


TV Commercial (part of a reel of ’80s adverts – starts at 1:44)