It’s sad, really. A free-spirited artist, Jimmy Mirikitani, meets a kind (if over-eager) documentarian named Linda Hattendorf. Though Jimmy’s drawings (with a mixed cat/Japanese internment camp theme) impress Linda, his residency outside a Sixth Avenue deli offends her charitable sensibilities. So Linda starts to help, and come September 11th, 2001, even invites Jimmy to stay in her apartment. She does whatever filmmakers do while not filming (saving the world?); he draws and paints his cats; awkwardness abounds. Meanwhile, Linda just happens to be helping Jimmy, and recording it for posterity.
This tension between art and social justice is one of the film’s major thematic concerns, but it’s so pervasive that it cuts Linda off at the knees. She’s too similar to the parade of shiny happy people that want to hold Jimmy’s hand. She takes him down a path he doesn’t want to go, revisiting memories of his own internment, until we discover he’s a “renunciant,” an American citizen of Japanese ancestry who accepted the government’s (bogus) offer to give up his citizenship in exchange for his freedom. Jimmy’s understandably miffed, and also more than a bit worried his past will catch up to him. Linda pushes and pulls, finding a cousin (Janice Mirikitani, Poet Laureate of San Francisco), a sister, and then, finally, an unread letter from 1959 restoring his American citizenship. Stupid Jimmy — you were a real American all along.
Though her heart is true, Linda’s head is a mess — which might explain the film’s exceptionally poor sound editing. Each piece of audio is rife with ambient buzz. And with nothing visually remarkable — except for Jimmy’s paintings, which, despite the often-saccharine reception they receive from the shiny people, are actually well-done — Hattendorf’s documentary has little going for it besides Jimmy’s eccentricity. Once introduced into the official world of social securities numbers and assisted living, however, Jimmy’s personality seems to wither, and so does the film. The Cats of Mirikitani only has room for one creative spirit, and that’s Linda Hattendorf’s.