Friday, July 14, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Neko Atsume House

If Colson Whitehead can write a zombie novel, why not Masaru Sakumoto? Perhaps because he is written out. The once promising new novelist hasn’t written anything readable in years, so his publisher demands he introduce zombies into his low-rated serial. Hoping to spark his stalled creative process, Sakumoto retreats to a sleepy provincial town, but he finds a whole bunch of cats instead in Masatoshi Kurakata’s Neko Atsume House (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Apparently, NA House is based on a smart-phone game. Considering the number of cats slinking through it, the game must be a first-person shooter, but the film is nothing like that. After his brief initial grouchiness, Sakumoto is actually happy to have all those flea and rabies carrying strays around. In fact, he even tries to attract more.

Remarkably, Sakumoto’s dedicated editor Michiru Towada has not given up on him yet. She keeps schlepping out to beat his latest installment out of him. Despite her shy demeanor and her sentimental attachment to his prize-winning debut, she is honest about the quality of his current work. He basically knows it too, which is why he would rather be the neighborhood’s crazy cat lady. At least, trips to the local cat specialty store provide a little bit of social interaction with Yoko, the owner.

Frankly, NA House must be the best film based on a video game ever, but we’ll still accept Mortal Kombat as an answer for nostalgic reasons. Regardless, NA House has sensitive and complex characters as well as an unhurried but purposeful narrative, which certainly set it well apart from the field. Although the film eschews traditional romance there is something quite endearing and ultimately poignant about Sakumoto’s relationships with Towada and the intimidatingly alluring cat store proprietor. You rarely see these sorts of smart, platonic interactions in movies to any real extent. That’s another reason why NA House is so refreshing.

Atsushi Ito is quietly understated as Sakumoto, which is indeed a virtue. As Towada, Shiori Kutsuna sneaks up on viewers with the power of her performance. However, Tae Kimura’s Yoko outshines everyone, even including the cats.

In fact, there is one green-eyed feline who looks pretty darned evil. No matter what cat apologists say, you’d be freaked if you woke up with him standing over you. Nevertheless, the process of a writer rediscovering his voice is rendered with intelligence and subtlety. This is a good film, even with all those cats. Recommended with surprising enthusiasm, Neko Atsume House screens this Sunday (7/16) at the Japan Society as part of the current edition of Japan Cuts, but if you don’t already have a ticket, you’re going to have to ride the stand-by line.