In the spring of 2001, New York filmmaker Linda Hattendorf began videotaping stories told to her by a homeless, elderly Japanese-American man named Jimmy Mirikitani who lived on the streets near her home. Driven out of a curiosity about his life and drawings, little did she know that the documentary she would craft with him, “The Cats of Mirikitani,” would become an internationally acclaimed, award-winning film and transform both of their lives. This month on XFINITY On Demand, Cinema Asian America features this moving and intimate portrait of a man, who, through his more than eight decades of life has lived through some of the past century’s most history-altering events; the bombing of Hiroshima, WWII Japanese American internment camps and 9/11. Hattendorf sat down to tell us a bit about the making of the film. Update: Jimmy Mirikitani passed away on October 21, 2012 at the age of 92. The following interview was conducted prior to his passing.
Watch “The Cats of Mirikitani” on XFINITY On Demand.
How did you meet Jimmy and why did you decide to make a film about him?
LH: I first met Jimmy on a street corner in Soho, just a block from my apartment. It was January 2001, and bitterly cold. He was wrapped in so many hats, coats, and blankets that I could barely see his face. Despite the cold, he was proudly exhibiting his artwork under the shelter of a Korean deli. A picture of a cat caught my eye and we struck up a conversation. It was soon apparent that he was not just selling his artwork, but homeless and living on the street. He seemed so old and frail, and yet full of spirit and life. I was curious and concerned – and I like cats. He gave me the drawing, but asked me to take a picture of it for him. I came back the next day with a small video camera. I asked if he could tell me the stories in some of his pictures. And he had many stories to tell! That’s how it began.
I was working as an editor of documentaries at the time, but had never made a feature length piece of my own before. At first I thought I would just make a small portrait of this elderly artist on the streets of New York, and hope that someone would see it and want to help him. But as I learned more about his past — that he had spent nearly four years in the US internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, and lost half his family to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima — I realized there was a deeper story here. Jimmy had lost homes in such a profound way in the past, through war and discrimination; I wanted to explore how this may have contributed to him winding up homeless on the streets 60 years later.
Then in September, the attack on the World Trade Center changed life as we knew it in lower Manhattan. I found I couldn’t just stand there watching dispassionately through the lens of the camera as Jimmy coughed in the smoke. I brought my subject home — breaking all kinds of rules about objectivity in filmmaking!
Jimmy lived with me for five months. We watched together as the nightly news made comparisons between the discrimination suffered by Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and the new bias attacks on Muslim- and Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11. Jimmy’s history took on an eerie resonance and even greater significance. I was even more committed to telling his story.
Eventually I realized I would have to include myself – and my cat – in the film, though this was never my original intention. I had 200 hours of footage and many layers of stories. Luckily, I found a great editor – Keiko Deguchi, and producer – Masa Yoshikawa, who helped me weave together the material into what became an award-winning film.
Jimmy has had a remarkable life, having lived through so many of the historic moments of this century and the last. How would you describe the arc of his life?
LH: I believe that Jimmy was able to survive these multiple traumas throughout his life by making art. One of the things I admire most about him is his ability to hold on to joy and humanity despite the most grave of circumstances. No matter what was happening around him, he was able to retain his spirit. There is a deep core inside him that no one could take away. I think this is one of the reasons he has been such an inspiration to so many people who have come to see the film again and again.
In many ways, “The Cats of Mirikitani” connected Jimmy with the Japanese-American community, whom he had not had much contact with for much of his life. What has come from these interactions, through community screenings and events?
LH: Like most Americans, I really knew very little about the WWII internment camps. One of the most painful things I’ve learned about American history is how the Japanese-American community was deliberately fragmented during WWII. There were 10 “relocation camps” spread from Arkansas to Washington. Families were separated, businesses were destroyed, property was lost. Japanese-Americans were made to feel suspect for exhibiting any sense of cultural pride. Two-thirds of the people imprisoned in these camps were American citizens by birth. Jimmy, who was born in Sacramento and raised in Hiroshima, had returned to the US in the late 1930s full of pride in his dual heritage, seeking to unite the best of both east and west. Instead he was thrown into a prison camp, suspect solely because of his Japanese ancestry. When the camps finally closed, many from the west coast had nothing to go home to. Jimmy was one of those who were recruited for labor on a farm in Seabrook, New Jersey, and thus found himself far from the community he had known before the war.
Returning to the site of the Tule Lake camp, in northern California, was a profound moment for Jimmy in 2002 – as you will see in the film. I believe it was here, through uniting once again with a community that understood his experience and most importantly wanted to hear more about it, that he truly began to heal. There is still unfortunately a lot of silence around the camp experience. The children and grandchildren of those who were interned know it affected their families in a profound way yet many come from families who never spoke about their experiences there. They are hungry to know more. Jimmy’s determination to tell his story through his art, to be sure we never forget this history, is treated with much admiration and respect. He looks forward to re-uniting with this community again on their next pilgrimage in July 2012.
In New York, the Japanese-American Association has celebrated his life and work many times since the film’s release, and I am very grateful that Aileen Yamaguchi, the president of the New York chapter of JACL, personally takes the time to visit him regularly. JACL sponsored his visit to Washington, D.C. last year, and NYU’s A/P/A Institute exhibited his work. He recently attended a JAA senior lunch and serenaded the crowd with a few of his favorite Japanese folk songs.
Roger Shimomura is another important connection to the community. When Jimmy was living on the street, this Japanese-American artist was visiting him in Washington Square Park, bringing him sushi and art supplies. The two bonded when Roger told Jimmy that he too had been in the camps and made art about this experience. Later, Shimomura curated an exhibition of Jimmy’s work at the Wing Luke Asian Museum and continues to promote both his art and the film.
Jimmy is very grateful for all the support of the community.
Can you tell us about how Jimmy is doing today? I understand that he just celebrated his 91st birthday in New York. Is he still painting?
LH: We have had a birthday party for Jimmy every year for the past 10 years, and they get bigger and better all the time. We invite fans of the film to come and people fly in from all over the world to see “the grand master!”
Jimmy is still making art. At the age of 86, he had his first one-man exhibition in Seattle. Last year, a painting he did in the 1940s was exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, as part of the exhibition, “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1946.” Reproductions of his work and our dvd are now available at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles as well as at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle. He is very proud of the success of the film, and pleased that it continues to stimulate dialogue about the camps and the bomb — subjects which are still rarely portrayed in today’s mainstream media. He is looking forward to attending the next Pilgrimage to Tule Lake in July 2012.
What are you working on now?
LH: I am developing a documentary about peaceful societies. We’ve seen enough of what war looks like in the movies. Now it’s time to start representing peace. People are hungry for some good news, stories of the things that unite, not divide, us. We need media that provides us with images and language of a better way.