The disappearance of a beloved cat has sparked many a crisis in Japanese cinema. In Shotaro Kobayashi’s* Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita), the disappearance is as metaphorical as it is literal in that this particular cat has come to symbolise the faded love of a couple married for fifty years whose relationship has begun to disintegrate if in a very ordinary way.
Chibi had been a constant companion to Yukiko (Chieko Baisho) who often feels neglected by her salaryman husband of 50 years, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji). Now that he’s (semi-)retired, she hoped they might be able reconnect, perhaps even travel, but he is just as disinterested in domestic life as ever and mostly spends his days popping back into the office or playing shogi in a nearby club. An awkward, conservative man, Masaru aggressively ignores his wife, even irritatedly blanking her when she spots him out and about, while she dutifully waits for him at home to take his socks off for him in the hall and pick up the jacket he so casually throws to the floor for her to deal with. Chibi’s disappearance is then another blow to her already lonely world and Masaru’s extremely unsympathetic reaction to her fears eventually provokes her into wondering if she should leave him.
Masaru, it has to be said, is not an easy man and it’s easy to imagine that much of Yukiko’s married life may have been difficult or even unhappy. This is perhaps why though youngest daughter Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is originally panicked by her mother’s mention of divorce, all three of the couple’s grown-up children are eventually on her side and claim they can completely understand why she might feel that way. As if trying to fill a very real void in her life, Yukiko has taken to watching romantic Korean dramas dubbed into Japanese while reminiscing on her own romantic past which led her to marry Masaru all those years ago.
Nevertheless, despite her own dissatisfaction, she remains perturbed by Naoko’s disinclination to marry even at the comparatively late age of 37. Avowing that she doesn’t think a woman needs a career, Yukiko tries to push her daughter towards the socially conservative choices of home and family. Yukiko may worry that Naoko will end up all alone in her old age, but then as Naoko points out, Yukiko did everything “right” and feels alone anyway. Tellingly, Naoko was once engaged to man who jilted her right before the wedding because he was insecure about her career success which had exceeded his own and apparently needed to be master in his own home. Unfortunately, the world has not quite moved on enough and it seems many men still only want women who will take their socks off for them at the end of a busy day.
Naoko doesn’t want to get married just for the sake of it which, ironically, seems to be the same way Yukiko felt when she was young though as it turned out her courtship with Masaru was an awkward mix of arranged and not. Having fallen for him at her job on the milk counter at the station, she was slightly stunned to spot his picture in an omiai book and agreed to the meeting only for Masaru to tersely tell her he’d decided to take the first offer and didn’t even open the envelope to peek inside. In true Masaru fashion, this may turn out to be a lie of awkwardness but it’s left a note of anxiety running right through their decades long marriage which only is now bubbling the surface. Yukiko worries she “stole” Masaru from her friend on the counter who liked him first and whom she spots him secretly meeting all these years later. A lack of emotional honesty has created a widening gulf between husband and wife with Yukiko left wondering if her husband ever really loved her at all.
The search for the missing cat becomes a quest to rediscover the smouldering love of a longterm couple that a lack of communication has all but smothered. Yukiko tries everything she can to find Chibi, even hiring a pet detective, while Masaru irritatedly tells her to give up – that Chibi has most likely gone off to die and wanted to spare Yukiko the pain of watching him suffer. Masaru may be somewhat casting himself as the wandering cat, the strong and silent type who thinks he’s protecting his wife by making her miserable, but deep down he too wants to save their love even if it means he will finally have to find the wherewithal to talk about his feelings without embarrassment. A charming late life love story, Only the Cat Knows is careful not to sugarcoat the the destructive social codes of a bygone era but allows its pair of former lovers to rediscover what it was they once had while allowing them to move forward into a happier future.
*Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s name is also romanised as Syoutarou Kobayasi
Original trailer (no subtitles)