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If Cats Disappeared from the World
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by Jay Seaver

"Despite what some may think from the title, not a horror movie."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There probably is not quite the same philosophical divide between West and East - or more specifically, America and Japan - as there has been at other times in history, but the different priorities at the hearts of the cultures are a large part of what makes it so interesting for me as an outsider. It is, whether deliberately or not, an inversion of an American classic, although one need not get particularly analytical to enjoy it - it is a sweet movie that finds ways to charm despite its sad premise.

It opens by introducing us to a young man (Takeru Satoh), about thirty and delivering the mail for a living. While out on his route, he has a seizure, and the doctor gives him some bad news: He has a brain tumor, inoperable, and he doesn't have much time. But maybe he has more than he thinks - as he despaired of what to do next, a doppelganger appears and tells him that he can have another day, but something else musty new removed from the world to compensate each day. Telephones, for a start. But here's the rub: He met his first girlfriend (Aoi Miyazaki) because she called a wrong number, and everything else this devil takes to extend his life is going to take a chunk of his past.

The movie is, in this way, the flip side of It's a Wonderful Life, with the protagonist's continued presence in the world coming at a price, not just to himself, but to the whole world. The contrast in how the American film values a specific individual over the crowd is perhaps most visible in who makes the offer to change the world and keep them around - a man who claims to be a celestial being but needs the help of the self-doubting man and his exceptional goodness, versus his own mirror image, selfishly telling him to do whatever it takes to hang on. It's not a perfect comparison, but given how central movies are to the relationships between the younger characters - Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (apparently called "Buenos Aires" in Japan) play important parts - it's hard to believe the filmmakers and original novelist Genki Kawamura didn't make the connection at some point.

More impotent, though, is how it focuses on the necessity of letting go, and how there is not necessarily any right way to do it. While the fantasy elements are a large part of what makes the film unique and interesting, much time is spent on flashbacks to another bout with cancer, this one claiming the life of this man's mother (Mieko Harada) when he was a child, a devastating loss that neither he nor his father (Eiji Okuda) truly recovered from. It doesn't take the audience long to figure out that removing cats specifically would destroy one of the things that forged a leading bond between mother and son when he was going enough to possibly forget her, and that gives a dual edge to the devil's bargain here: By not accepting death when it announces itself as inevitable (as with the father who buried himself in work during his wife's illness), you lose the chance at joy, which also happens if you cut the things which tie you together out. You've got to keep that cat with the cute name, even if he reminds you of something that hurt, because that's not all he brings to mind.

Director Akira Nagai is low-key in how he implements this - far more Wong than Lang, you might say. Visual effects are pointedly low-key - when Takeru Satoh acts against himself, even the scenes where it's not an obvious double are simple enough not to be revealed as a surprisingly tricky shot in retrospect - as it's the world-building. The point of the movie is not to show how the world would have evolved over the last century without the telephone, but what connections are severed. It's the same line of thinking that has him shooting in cluttered everyday spaces, and not playing out too much in the flashbacks: It might be tempting to show why this guy and his ex-girlfriend are no longer together after showing how they met or what seems like a pretty happy South American vacation, but it's not actually germane to the story, so it's not there.

Satoh does a nice job of portraying the weight on his character's shoulders, letting us see it build up naturally despite the film covering a relatively short amount of time, the incomprehensibility of the world going on without him (or, alternately, things that are important to him) seeming to settle in his stomach like a rock. He also does an impressive job of working his charm, especially in the flashbacks, as his informed eagerness as a student seems nor to have gelled into something definite by the time he's in Argentina, and it's not quite so cute anymore, while his devil has a youthful impatience to go with the usual image of the big-picture schemer. If there's a bit of excess in how vibrant Mieko Harada makes the mother, it likely reflects her sons memory of her, and it highlights how Eiji Okuda's portrayal of a distant father, something the audience has probably seen a lot, can grow in one's esteem as the man realizes just how alone he will be.

The movie might be unbearably sad in an actual world without cats; the actors' feline co-stars warm up the film quite a bit. It helps; pictures as laden with metaphor with metaphor and reference add this can miss their emotional target without a little nudge. Nagai manages to keep his from doing so, making what could have been a peculiar art-house weepie something that most viewers will extract something from.

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originally posted: 10/02/16 15:22:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Akira Nagai

Written by
  Yoshikazu Okada

  Takeru Satoh
  Aoi Miyazaki
  Gaku Hamada
  Eiji Okuda
  Mieko Harada

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