Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Kenji Nakanishi, 2022)

As it turns out, the modern world is not so different from the feudal after all. After realising that their friend and mentor has passed away, a team working together to create an accurate map of Japan in the early 19th century are immediately worried that their project will be axed as a part of a cost cutting exercise at the hands of the penny-pinching Shogun. Inspired by Shinosuke Tatekawa’s rakugo story, Kenji Nakanishi’s heartwarming dramedy Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Taiga e no Michi) tells parallel tales of hardworking civil servants trying to put their town on the map and Edo-era officials trying to avoid incurring the Shogun’s displeasure so they can ensure their late friend’s life’s work will eventually be finished. 

In the present day, the small town of Katori is trying to think of ways to raise its profile but according to junior civil servant Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) the programme proposed by the tourist board has little to offer in simply imitating the initiatives of other better known cities. As he points out, if tourists want to experience life in olden times there are lots of places they can do that already. Chief of General Affairs Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai) idly suggests that they try and get local historical personannage Chukei-san, better known as Ino Tadataka the man who completed the first accurate map of the Japanese islands, featured as the subject of a year-long historical TV drama. Of course, Kobayashi from the tourist board (Keiko Kitagawa) thinks it’s a silly idea, but the governor likes it so Ikemoto now has a very difficult job not least because the governor wants him to convince a grumpy writer who hasn’t written anything in 20 years to handle the script. 

The reason Kato (Isao Hashizume) retired from screenwriting is that he too was fed up with placating commercially-minded executives and isn’t prepared to work on anything in which he doesn’t have full creative control which might be a problem a civil servant like Ikemoto could sympathise with if he wasn’t so desperate to bring him on board. It can’t be denied that the story of the map’s creation is itself fascinating if only in its technical detail of how these men were able to complete a map which almost perfectly aligns with modern aerial photography using only the technology of the early 19th century. As Kato points out, Tadataka was already in his 70s and the bulk of the work is simply walking all around Japan measuring it step by step. He’d only begun the project because he wanted to figure out the size of the earth by charting the Meridian Arc, but figured that out right away and still went on to work on the map for reasons largely unknown though later hinting a sense of anxiety in the late Edo society in believing that understanding the shape of the nation’s coastlines was the key to national defence in the wake of a Russian attack that had cost two of Tadataka’s local helpers their lives. 

Yet the drama idea is pretty much dead in the water after realising that Tadataka “died” three years before the map was completed. Fearing they’d lose their funding, Tadataka’s team buried him in secret and told people he was simply out on location while trying to finish the map before anyone found out knowing that their lives were at risk if the Shogun discovered they’d been lying to him and assumed they’d been doing it to continue claiming Tadataka’s stipend. To ram his point home, Nakanishi has the civil servants taking on the role of the mapmakers in Kato’s putative version of the story as they come together as a team to finish their mentor’s project but are eventually forgotten by history in much the same way as Ikemoto and his team will eventually be even as they too work for their betterment of their nation by taking care of the community. Ikemoto becomes something of a Tadataka figure, deciding to pickup a new skill in middle-age and aiming high in perfecting it (while slightly misleading the boss as he does so). A heartwarming tale of the value of teamwork and the perils of bureaucratic cost cutting, Nakanishi’s historical dramedy implies that not so much as changed in 200 years but that’s not entirely a bad thing as the dedicated team of civil servants do their best to put their city on the map.


Dreaming of the Meridian Arc screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Dreaming of the Meridian Arc” Film Partners

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)