Japanese Title: レンタネコ
Running Time: 110 mins.
Release Date: May 12th, 2012 (Japan)
Director: Naoko Ogigami
Writer: Naoko Ogigami
Starring: Mikako Ichikawa, Reiko Kusamura, Ken Mitsuishi, Maho Yamada, Kei Tanaka
There is a woman who roams a riverbank in a contemporary Japanese city. She pulls a cart which has a selection of cats in the back. This is actually part of her business. As she moves at a leisurely pace she calls out to people through a megaphone with simple slogans and questions to attract the right customers:
“Rent-a-cat. Rent-aaaaaaaaaa-cat. Feeling lonely? I’ll lend you a cat.”
Her name is Sayoko (Ichikawa) and it seems that she does this daily. Tall and slender, with short hair and a long face, she is dressed in an imaginative array of colourful though unfashionable clothes that look like they were put together after a foray in a charity shop. She is a magnet for cats and lives in a house full of former strays that join her feline family. One might class her as a free thinker and her employment renting out cats certainly seems to indicate this. She has earned a bit of a reputation since two elementary school-boys are so familiar with her that they brazenly refer to her as “that weird cat lady.” However, far from being ostracised by society most ignore her but there are some who hear her voice and are drawn to her. These are the lonely people with holes in their hearts. Sayoko can spot them a mile off and knows that the best medicine for that is the tender friendship of a cat. She knows because of a lonely hole in her own heart…
I posted the trailer for this film back in 2012 because I like cats and the idea was quirky enough to catch my attention. Soon, other cat lovers were commenting on the post and it still gets visitors to this day. In 2012/3, the film toured film festivals around the world (like Berlin) and made its way to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Thanks to this, the film is available on the Edinburgh Filmhouse player, a treasure-trove of indie and foreign titles which can be streamed for a low price. Some titles like Shun Li and the Poet, and What Maisie Knew are on DVD in the UK but some like Rent-a-Cat would probably not make the transition to physical distribution because its delights are subtle.
Writer and director Naoko Ogigami has crafted a deceptive film. It is billed as a comedy but is rarely laugh out loud funny. She has split her film into a series of vignettes with Sayoko’s story acting as a frame. Most of the stories are familiar and simple and the pace is gentle and languid with a level of quirkiness that is layered over stories of profound loneliness. Each vignette begins with Sayoko pottering about her home before she traipses along the riverbank with her cats, calling out to other lonely people who soon take her up on her offer of feline companionship. The customers range from a widow with a negligent son who wants a companion to break the loneliness, a businessman (the fantastic Ken Mitsuishi who was in Noriko’s Dinner Table) who finds more love from a cat than he does from his wife and daughter and a lonely woman at a little used rental car store who has little contact with anybody and spends all her time alone. These are all specimens of a highly atomised society where people are too timid to strike out and make friends or tell the people close to them what they feel, the sort of recognisable people we might pass without a second thought but all yearning for human contact.
Each person is wracked by insecurities and loneliness that contact with a cat can cure or assuage and help them move on with their lives. Then we retreat back to Sayoko’s house. The stories are subtle and often bittersweet, although very familiar and easily resolved. The lightning rod of each sequence is Sayoko who comes with her cats to lighten lives and with her quirky behaviour, provides a lot of the comedy and proved to be the most interesting.
Sayoko spends sluggish sun-sick summer days either pulling her cart along the river or lolling around her traditional cosy home amidst her many cats (I imagine this to be a dream location all women have), slowly doing chores and complaining about the heat – “Atsui. Atsui. Atsuuuuui.”
The more time we spend with her and in her home, the more we appreciate her. The focal point of her home is a shrine. It has been two years since her beloved Grandma passed away and Sayoko is battling a lonely hole in her own heart. Such is her loneliness that she makes wall-scrolls with characters proclaiming, “This year I’ll get married.” She has a deeply caring relationship with her cats but it seems that the only human contact she has is with a guy in a dress who turns up to mock her loneliness.
I hope she doesn’t turn into a crazy cat lady because there are strange, creative and fun elements to Sayoko’s quirky personality, like the unique way she eats somen noodles to the way she makes a large cat’s cradle in her house to hang her washing up on a rainy day.
Ichikawa is a delight to watch. She is a bit of a tom-boy with unconventional looks but has an attractive personality which is equal parts kindness, devotion and endurance, not least shown in the way she treats her cats so well and there are a lot of cats, each with their own personality and quirks.
While the loneliness of others is easily packaged up, Sayoko’s isn’t and her ending is very enigmatic. I prefer to read that she has moved on herself and found happiness.
The film is definitely about the people and Ogigami’s direction focusses on them. Shot composition and camera placement help to deliver the emotions intended. Most of the shots are long takes and eye-level so we see the look of despondency over the neglect and worry they feel to the look joy on people’s faces when a feline friend enters their life. My personal favourites include some great shots to show Sayoko on the riverbank.
And a great low-angle shot that shows her small house surrounded by tower blocks.
The film is always pleasant to watch which further enhances its gentle atmosphere.
Rent-a-Cat was entertaining and I am glad that I have finally watched it but what got me was that behind the gentle and relaxing pace, the wry and very dry comedy and strangeness was a kernel of human emotion, the loneliness that people can feel in contemporary society. The film is billed as a comedy but do not expect to be howling with laughter, more entertained and warmed by the film and maybe, a little emotional at points. Ogigami, in probing loneliness, does not make a depressing film, more a gentle and low-key comedy.