How do you keep going after all your dreams have died? For the hero of manga adaptation Cats Don’t Come When You Call (猫なんかよんでもこない。, Neko Nanka Yondemo Konai.), a pair of adorable kittens eventually point the way towards a more positive future. After all, it’s easier to convince yourself to look after something else than it is to look after yourself. As the title suggests, however, cats like the future can be elusive and confusing, both needy and indifferent. In caring for them you’ll inevitably make mistakes, but those mistakes will perhaps teach you something about the business of being alive.
The hero, Mitsuo (Shunsuke Kazama), is a dog person, which is why he walks on by when he sees a cardboard box with two abandoned kittens inside by the railway line. An aspiring boxer, he’s moved in with his mangaka brother (Takeshi Tsuruno) and given up all his part-time jobs in the hope of winning enough fights to achieve A-rank status and get a license to turn pro. He’s quite annoyed, therefore, to discover that his brother decided to adopt the cats, naming them Tiny and Blackie, and is expecting him to look after them seeing as he’s not contributing in any other way.
Despite his original animosity (he claims to hate cats because of their “malicious, warped personalities”), Mitsuo ends up taking to the kittens who quickly take to him, though mostly because he is providing them food and warmth. He even starts to think that these must be “special”, “genius” cats, especially after he wins his big fight and is all set to turn pro believing that the cats are his good luck charm. But all at once his dreams crumble. He receives an eye injury that requires surgery and is advised not to box again in case he goes blind. Feeling sorry for him, his brother keeps giving him money to get out of the house, something which makes Mitsuo feel loved and appreciated. Only later does he realise that he had an ulterior motive when his brother announces he’s decided to get married and will be moving back to the country. “You’re good at taking care of others” he tells him, dropping the bombshell he’s leaving the cats behind too.
It’s tempting to believe that Mitsuo’s brother picked the cats up with just this purpose in mind, to give Mitsuo another outlet outside of boxing that encouraged him to nurture a more caring side that wasn’t all about solitary, singleminded athletic pursuit. For a man in his early 20s who’s thrown everything at his boxing dream, Mitsuo has few life skills and is perhaps not particularly used to taking care of himself even if he lived alone before surviving on part-time jobs alongside training. He quickly realises that the money his brother left won’t last long, and not only that he can’t really afford to be a cat dad on his meagre savings. An attempt to cut costs by buying cheaper cat food (which he at some points shares) backfires when the offended felines decide to stage a protest by temporarily leaving home. Cats don’t come when you call after all, and Mitsuo wonders if there’s anything more in their decision to stay with him than the fact he feeds them.
For all that, however, they exemplify the contradictory qualities of his personality. The male cat, Blackie, is timid and shy, while his sister Tiny is outgoing and adventurous, quickly joining a local cat gang and taking up with its boss. Fuelled by a vicarious toxic masculinity, Mitsuo becomes preoccupied with Blackie’s lack of manly energy, obsessed with him becoming the boss of the local cats. A young woman in the park who found the pair after they ran away advises Mitsuo to get the cats spayed and neutered, something he probably should have thought about earlier but doesn’t really have the money for. Worried about Tiny’s “promiscuity”, he eventually decides she should have the surgery but later worries he did the wrong thing when the neighbourhood cats shun her and she becomes a depressed shut-in. Conversely he decides against Blackie getting the snip, glad to discover him going out on the prowl and challenging the local toms even when he is seriously injured in a fight. Projecting his own boxing struggles and the desire to be a champion onto his cat, Mitsuo decides his responsibility as a cat dad is to support from the sidelines as Blackie assumes his masculinity by becoming top cat.
Because of his underdog boxer past, Mitsuo doesn’t stop to worry that it’s not good his cat keeps getting hurt, believing all these scars are badges of manliness especially after Ume (Mayu Matsuoka), the woman from the park, explains that the male cats fight over the females which is why he should have had him neutered. She also explains that Blackie’s delivering him dead lizards probably isn’t a thank you for not giving him the snip, but a minor insult in implying he thinks he’s a bit helpless and doesn’t know how to hunt. Spurred on by Blackie’s contempt he decides to forge ahead in the new frontier of manga, no longer content with his steady life working part-time in a school kitchen, to prove that he too is a “champion” even if not in the ring. Only too late does he realise he may have let Blackie down in not properly protecting him in projecting his own toxic masculinity onto his cat, and that he may have let himself down too with his all encompassing need to be the champion when maybe it’s better to just enjoy life while doing your best. Nevertheless as Ume points out, cats choose their carers and if they aren’t happy they leave. It’s better to look back on all the happy times you’ve spent together and take note of everything they’ve taught you. Cats don’t come when you call, but they come when you need them, and, as Mitsuo discovers, being needed by them when everything else seems to have rejected you might just be the push you need to finally start taking care of yourself.
Hong Kong release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)