In the winter of 2001 documentary maker Linda Hattendorf came across homeless artist Jimmy Mirikitani on the streets of Manhattan. Hattendorf became intrigued with Mirikitani and when the twin towers collapsed in 2001 she became concerned about the state of his health and invited him to stay with her in her flat.
The film ‘The Cats of Mirikitani’ explores the life and history of the 80 year old artist through his journey with Linda that ends with his successful reinstatement as an American citizen and his entitlement to Social Security benefits and housing.
Mirikitani is a ‘Grand Master’ who fuses his Western experiences with traditional Japanese art. His extraordinary story revolves around the fact that he refused to accept U.S. citizenship because he didn’t agree with a government that detained him in an internment camp at Tule Lake in northern California, taking away both his passport and citizenship: “But I was born in Sacramento and had a U.S. passport!” He was born in 1920 in California, but returned with his family to Hiroshima before World War II, then escaped to the U. S. to avoid Japanese military service. Mirikitani’s sister was sent to a different camp and by the end of the film we see them touchingly reunited. Amazingly he also meets another relative, Janice Mirikitani, Poet Laureate of San Francisco.
After several years at Tule Lake he was transferred to the Seabrook Farms plant in New Jersey where he worked 12-hour shifts six days a week until a lawyer finally won their release in 1947. Jimmy settled down in New York City where he worked as a cook, once cooking Japanese food for Jackson Pollock. When his employer died in the late 1980s he wound up on the streets selling his art to passers-by. The title of the film comes from Mirikitani’s drawings of cats for the tourists that sought him out. The documentary won the Audience Award at its premiere in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and only came to my attention when it was shown recently on Sky Arts.
The film is totally compelling and charming, full of empathy and compassion. The relationship between Hattendorf and Miriktani’s was one that changed both their lives. Mirikitani’s motto was ‘make art not war’ and this film is truly representative of this ethos.
The Cats of Mirikitani is available on DVD.