Saturday, July 21, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12: Rent-a-Cat

It is not much of a business, but at least the inventory is cheap.  In fact, Sayoko attracts stray cats like a magnet.  Profits really are not the point anyway.  She is out to fill the holes in people’s hearts, perhaps even including her own in Naoko Ogigami’s Rent-a-Cat (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 edition of Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Japanese Cinema.

In a sleepy corner of Tokyo, Sayoko lives in the picturesque Minka-esque house she once shared with her beloved late grandmother, along with a dozen or so cats.  The woman has become a crazy cat lady at a young age, but there is a method to her madness.  Most days, she pulls her cart through the neighborhood, hawking cats for rent.  Of course, she will not rent to just anyone.  A home inspection is required.

Intentionally episodic, we watch Sayoko repeat the cat rental ritual with several customers, each with a hole to fill in their lives.  For an elderly widow reluctant to buy a new cat knowing her time is short, Sayoko’s service is a godsend.  However, some clients take a bit of convincing, like the desperately unfulfilled car rental agency manager.  Yet, the most intriguing potential client-story arc involves Yoshizawa, the former delinquent middle school classmate Sayoko initially wants nothing to do with.

Rent-a-Cat is a quiet film, chocked full of feline adorableness.  It wears its sentimental heart on its sleeve, deriving gentle laughs from its characters quirks (to use a loaded word).  However, it is more bittersweet than compulsively cute, particularly during Sayoko’s smartly ambiguous encounter with Yoshizawa.

As Sayoko, Mikako Ichikawa blends goofy awkwardness and sincere sensitivity quite touchingly.  Indeed, it is a very humane performance, displaying real on-screen chemistry with her animal co-stars and Kei Tanaka’s Yoshizawa.

There might not be a lot of surprises in the unhurried Rent-a-Cat, but Ogigami infuses the proceedings with a wistful atmosphere that is quite beguiling.  Essentially, it is an animal lovers’ indie that well reflects traditional Japanese aesthetics of elegant simplicity.  An effective mood piece featuring several nice turns from its small human ensemble, Rent-a-Cat is recommended surprisingly highly for those who suspect they might appreciate its discreet charms.  It screens this coming Wednesday (7/25) at the Japan Society, as this year’s Japan Cuts continues.