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Where EAST meets the Northwest

 

JIMMYíS JOURNEY. Jimmy Mirikitani survived internment camps, Hiroshima, and homelessness by creating art. But when a filmmaker brought him into her home after the terrorist attacks on New York City, the two embarked on a journey to confront his past. Pictured is Mirikitani sketching Castle Rock Mountain at Tule Lake Internment Camp. (Photo/Hiroko Masuike, courtesy of ITVS)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #18 (May 1, 2007), page 10.

Jimmyís 60-year journey

The Cats of Mirikitani

Directed by Linda Hattendorf

Produced by Linda Hattendorf and Masa Yoshikawa

lucid dreaming, inc., 2006

By Ronault L.S. Catalani

He started out as Tsutomu Mirikitani, born in 1920, born American in Sacramento, California. Soon enough heís known as "Jimmy." About the same time everyone knew he was born an artist. It was in his eye, his heart, the way he handled pencils, pens, pastels, his sumi watercolors.

Then history intervened. Extraordinary history: ugly and tender, brutal and occasionally interrupted by grace. And this is the story, both mythic in scale and a bit voyeuristic in intimacy, weíre told by filmmaker Linda Hattendorf in her moving 2006 documentary The Cats of Mirikitani.

Cats starts pedestrian enough ó who hasnít seen them, dismissed them ó mumbling old sidewalk men ambling against winter chill in eight layers of coats, caps, and hoods. Itís Jimmy. "Grand Master Artist," felt-tip on cardboard says. Itís January 2001. Itís snowing in the hardened canyons of New York City.

A few frames later, itís summer, itís August 2001 and Jimmy Mirikitaniís chatting art with University of Kansas Distinguished Professor Roger Shimomura on Jimmyís Soho sidewalk. Behind and above the two of them, the World Trade Centerís twin towers reach into Manhattanís bright blue morning.

A few more frames pass. Then, our little world stops a long moment. The filmmaker and her subject, a million New Yorkers and nearly every American are afraid to blink, we stand stoned to the spot by angry black smoke billowing, by office debris raining, by someoneís wife or husband or son dropping from wounds in those stricken skyscrapersí sides.

"I found Jimmy alone there, coughing in the dark." Ms. Hattendorf asks the old gentleman off the toxically choked sidewalks and into her tiny apartment. With him come his tattered scrolled pastels, his mad watercolors, and the contents of his heaped shopping cart. From here the whole thing unravels. His story. Our history.

Ms. Hattendorf pulls it all off pretty impeccably, the film I mean. She does it by making herself small. And thatís huge because this tale is getting told, the camera is rolling, out of her postage-stamp flat. Ms. Hattendorf is at once our sobering documentarian and Mr. Mirikitaniís angelic benefactor. All this to say nothing of being his daughterly roommate ó "Twelve oíclock at night! Donít do dat anymore. I so worried, you donít come back 10:30. A lot of bad people there. So I worry." Righteous parental indignation.

Lost and found and redeemed

The difficulty of the former, of credible documentary, Iím certain, cannot be overestimated. Mr. Mirikitani is very old and very road-worn. He is understandably but immeasurably embittered by Americaís episodic madness, around war and around race. The searing reds in his Hiroshima and his twin towers pastels are frightening. Are made of the same consuming rage. The same insanity that takes away little people ó New York office workers and Japanese working dads and artists whoíd rather do scarlet persimmons and gray tomcats, all the same.

He is so alone. Homeless men are like that. Asian ones even more so.

All that notwithstanding, or maybe because of all that, as a coincidence of extraordinary existential import, Ms. Hattendorf the filmmaker maintains throughout an intense commitment to the historical record, to methodically chasing down sudden lapses in American democracy, to finding disappeared family members, to reuniting one lost soul with all those in shallow mass graves outside their Lake Tule prison camp.

Hard to do when your subjectís silence, indeed when his entire selfhood is so totally informed by so many things having gone so terribly wrong. "In the Matter of: Tsutomu Mirikitani, Enemy Alien," all proper nouns, reads a 1959 U.S. District Court document recovered by the filmmaker.

But she does it. And Master Mirikitani makes it too. "I feel very-very good now. People know now. I tell everything. Not mad anymore.

"Memory. Ghost people, very kind to me. Ghost people, now sleeping in Tule Lake Desert. Forever sleeping."

Redemption. With resolved souls like his, with storytellers like her, America cannot be far behind.

The Cats of Mirikitani took home the 2006 Tribeca Film Festivalís Audience Award. The documentary was produced by lucid dreaming inc., in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the Center for Asian American Media. Funding for the project was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by generous private donors. Cats will air nationally the first week of May, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, over PBS, locally on Oregon Public Broadcasting on May 8 at 11:00pm. For more information about the film, about artists and activists involved in the project, visit <www.pbs.org/catsofmirikitani> or <www.thecatsofmirikitani.com>.