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The adulatory review excerpts that accompanied the publicity for the showing of "I Am A Cat" in the Film Forum's summer 2008 retrospective of films starring Tatsuya Nakadai led me to expect a real treat, full of mordant wit and humor, when I saw it yesterday, July 2, 2008. This expectation was reinforced by an interview with Nakadai broadcast on WNYC-FM on June 24, 2008. In (a somewhat evasive) answer to a question about his favorites among his films, the great actor indicated that "I Am A Cat" belonged to that group. Speaking through an interpreter, he also mentioned that the film had not been a success in Japan because Japanese people did not appreciate ironic humor (then? in general?). Perhaps I missed most of the purported ironic humor as well because I found precious little of it in this film. Yes, there were some amusing moments but not enough to hold my interest. Reviewer "Dog Breath" tells us that the film was "never dull." Really? I found much of it boring (and, believe me, I don't require the incessant hacking off of limbs to keep my attention). The same reviewer also mentions "the film's tragic ending." Huh? The event near the end to which he refers was (humorously) sad but certainly not tragic in any meaningful sense of the word. "Sword of Doom" says that "the movie is good but only after you figure it out." I wonder how many hours (days?) were required to reach this conclusion.
Nakadai's character, Kushami, poses a dilemma for one who is not familiar with the Japanese literature. Kushami clearly embodies some of the attributes of Natsume Soseki, the Meiji Restoration-era novelist who also was a haiku poet, a writer of Chinese-style fairy tales and an expert on British literature. His 1905 novel "I Am A Cat" was a satirical look at Japanese society near the beginning of its career as imperialist power. Is the film's Kushami a faithful recreation of the (human) protagonist of Soseki's novel? If so, this version of the imaginative and productive Soseki takes self-deprecation to an extreme. Kushami is a lazybones and ditherer, who continually bemoans his position as middle-school teacher, who never seems to get anything done and who wastes a huge amount of time allowing himself to be distracted by uselessly chattering "friends," especially the intensely annoying Meitei (well-played by Juzo Itami). Any sensible person would have thrown this jerk out on his first visit. The cat of the title is cute and the source of some amusement but not the major character some of the publicity suggests. Among the film's few noteworthy moments: a policeman striking several unruly students (a foretaste of the militarized authoritarian society to come?); Kushami's accidental view of his very attractive niece in the nude and the apparent pleasure this gives him.
It is hard to imagine that the original novel was not wittier, more satirical and more entertaining than this film. As always, Nakadai and coworkers deliver some wonderful performances but a cinematic masterpiece this is not.
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