Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001 - two dates that will live in infamy. And it's hard to imagine anyone whose life has been more affected by those two infamous dates than Jimmy Mirikitani, the subject of Linda Hattendorf's fascinatingly moving documentary, The Cats of Mirikitani. As the smoke poured from the windows of the World Trade Center, Mirikitani, whose base of operations was a Korean market in SoHo, went on doing what he's always done: painted pictures of cats and tigers and persimmons and chrysanthemums, all rendered in an illustrational style that seems cozy and warm. But look again: Some of the paintings are of a row of barracks plopped down in the California desert next to a mountain. Yes, Jimmy, who's now in his 80s, once spent 3½ years in a Japanese internment camp.
And, in some ways, he wasn't released until those planes had their nefarious rendezvous with destiny. When Hattendorf first started filming Mirikitani, pre-9/11, he was what you might call an outsider artist - i.e., homeless, yet obsessively scribbling away while people interested in buying his art tried to get his attention. But when the streets were enveloped in a toxic cloud, Hattendorf did something rather extraordinary for a documentarian: She invited Jimmy into her home. They lived together in Hattendorf's tiny apartment while Hattendorf tried to find Jimmy housing, and they developed a kind of trust that allowed Jimmy to come out of hiding. Not unlike those Japanese soldiers who, unaware that the war was over, came screaming out of the jungle years later, Jimmy has spent almost his entire adult life on the down-low.
But it was all there in his paintings - the persimmons he used to pick in Hiroshima before the war, the jackrabbits that used to hop around the grounds of the Tule Lake camp, mocking the prisoners' lack of freedom. The horrors of the Japanese internment camps have been pretty thoroughly documented, but each individual story has a tragic dimension all its own. And when Jimmy returns to Tule Lake for a 60th reunion, you can practically see the piss and vinegar seep out of him. He'd become a crotchety old man over the years, and he and Hattendorf, sharing living quarters, make for quite the odd couple. But each seems to have gotten something valuable from the other. Jimmy got a new lease on life, not to mention a new lease on an apartment. And Hattendorf got a lovely film that dredges up the past, then helps lay it to rest.