While the Twin Towers' collapse inspired an instinctive desire for unity across the country, the people who lived directly under the toxic cloud of the aftermath felt it most inescapably. And for Linda Hattendorf and Jimmy Mirikitani, the noxious air would be the impetus for an unlikely and life altering friendship.
Hattendorf's documentary The Cats of Mirikitani begins in February of 2001, when she meets Mirikitani, an elderly Japanese American who sleeps outside of a Soho deli and draws pictures of cheerful cats and bleak depictions of the Japanese internment camps he was held in for three and half years after Pearl Harbor. After 9/11, when everyone has gone inside to escape the filth in the air, Hattendorf invites Mirikitani to take shelter in her apartment.
An odd roommate match, Hattendorf and Mirikitani get to know each other through endearing, Odd Couple-esque moments, and Hattendorf takes on the task of rebuilding Mirikitani's life. Meanwhile, the panicked, post-9/11 racial profiling swirls around them, and Mirikitani's experience with internment camps makes for some obvious but understated parallels.
Cats' subject matter is rich, Mirikitani is charmingly eccentric, and it's sweet to see his life improve as a result of Hattendorf's intervention. But Hattendorf herself is an oddly distant presence here; considering how central she is to the film, one feels almost no sense of her personality, which detracts greatly from the potential of her and Mirikitani's interactions. And the film could benefit from a more vivid look at the experience of Japanese Americans in internment camps, as well as intelligent perspectives and anecdotes from a wider pool of voices. Instead, The Cats of Mirikitani has the same detached feel as Hattendorf's voice: kind, but ultimately unknowable.