I wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with Kon Ichikawa’s work (and, truthfully, I’m still not), but the entire tone of his relatively obscure I Am a Cat caught me somewhat by surprise. I’d loved Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, a deeply and darkly humorous look at the ridiculousness of war played against that looming seriousness that’s always prevalent in those kind of films. I was then ready for some kind of Japanese incarnation of Harry and Tonto. That’s really not what I got, though. I Am a Cat is definitely steeped in comic undertones, with Tatsuya Nakadai almost parodying himself, but it’s absolutely far removed from Harry and Tonto. Instead, we’re left with some odd tribute to Nakadai’s eternally grumpy protagonist and the stray cat who’s his only true confidante.
Nakadai is an English teacher at a local school. He’s put-upon like the patron figure of dozens of films and televisions shows. Viewers who are especially fans of Nakadai will appreciate how the actor comically rants about here. His home life is almost disastrous, with a ditzy (but attractive) wife, three young children, a loud school nearby that’s controlled by a corrupt businessman he loathes, and frequent visits from layabout friends. And the grey-furred, green-eyed cat! I was mistakenly under the impression that the cat narrates the film, but this is patently false. Only the very last portion, mere minutes, is told from the cat’s perspective. We instead get the ruminations of Nakadai’s decidedly upset protagonist.
As such, the film will appeal particularly to a pair of contingents – those fans of Nakadai and the cat lovers. I, with head hung in semi-shame, volunteer as a part of both. The feline aspect is an especially winning part of the film, though not the focus. Sure those susceptible to some whiskers and such will be satiated by the throwaway shots of the cat, but the film is pretty good otherwise, as well. Nakadai’s constant disbelief at everything around him is pure brilliance. Baseballs come flying across the fence from the school. Not just a stray one or two, but ball after ball. Nakadai blows a fuse and then ends up humiliated. Suddenly the actor is delivering pathos to this grumpy middle-aged man. The comedy is still there, but it’s now twinged with a bit of sadness. You realize the film is battling an entire shift in Japan society. Businessmen are corrupt and powerful. Their newfound wealth has lead to unearned snobbishness. And kids just don’t respect their elders. It may not be an entirely unique or profound message, but the point is made.
Let’s get back to the cat, though. Furry little guy. Ichikawa completely plays to the kinds of moments that feline foes will loathe. The cat-friendly viewer smiles when the screen is filled by the whiskered star doing basically nothing except living up to the film’s title. Sure it’s pandering and the era-specific synthesizer music doesn’t help, but there’s a quaintness at play that saves these detours from harming the film. The cat is an important element in the movie and he serves as Nakadai’s companion when not out competing with a larger male for the affections of a female cat. The other male cat, called simply “Black,” provides by far the biggest laughs in a recurring bit about a weasel and his flatulence. There are few bigger crowd pleasers in an arthouse cinema than hearing Nakadai, with utmost seriousness, discuss “the fetid fart of the weasel” and its relation to the pride of this local cat community.
As the film winds down, we’re again left with that tragicomic malaise. Nakadai’s character has suffered a break-in that Ichikawa delicately plays for humor. The teacher even takes the cat to spend a night away from his quarrelsome wife. Problems also persist at work. Things just aren’t turning out well for him. Silently (unwillingly, you might say) supporting him through it all is the nameless cat. He’s taken up with the creature just when he feels let down and frustrated with everyone else. Things are necessarily changed for both by the ending, and I don’t want to spell it out here, but it’s unclear whether we should expect the Nakadai character to alter his languid musings or general grumpiness. Eccentric melancholy rules the day. For better or worse, we all have some fart of the weasel in us.