Japanese films don’t get much quirkier than this!
Director: Naoko Ogigami
Cast: Mikako Ichikawa, Reiko Kusamura, Ken Mitsuishi, Maho Yamada, Kei Tanaka
Rent-A-Cat follows in the footsteps of Kamome Diner (2006) and Glasses (2007), but this time director Naoko Ogigami cranks the quirk level to the max. More than ever her film ventures into dramedy territory, all the while maintaining her characteristic style.
Whereas Ogigami's previous films (mentioned above) had an almost meditative feel to them, Rent-A-Cat tickles your funny-bone throughout. It might be too silly for some. On the other hand, it is nice to see a confident director daring to develop her own expression.
The Caretaker and the Rent-A-Cat's Tale
The female protagonist Sayako is a young woman who was raised by her late grandmother. Sayako is all alone in the world, and her somewhat quirky demeanor doesn't seem to give her any sense of identity or belonging in her local community.
Her only defining characteristic is that she attracts cats. Her house is filled with cats of all sorts, which is a tiny wonder to behold. Since attracting all these cats, Sayako has started her own business in which she is renting out cats to lonely people.
Rent-A-Cat plays on the cuteness of cats like never before displayed on the silver screen.
The story is told in four sequences. In each part, Sayako encounters lonely people whose lives get improved by her selfless service. The storytelling makes the film somewhat formulaic and predictable, but this is more than made up for with silliness and kawaii.
For those of you wondering about the meaning of «kawaii», check out the link to my other blog about Tokyo lifestyle: Husky Loves Japan
Narrative Thread - Here Kitty Kitty
Rent-A-Cat captivates on a personal level. The character’s unfortunate problems are all of a mundane nature that most people can relate to. It can be the loss of a close one, the separation from one's family, or having to cope with a dead-end job - the common denominator being loneliness.
The story of a young woman who tries to make a livelihood by renting out cats to lonely people is a quirky idea right off the bat. But even more so, Ogigami utilizes this idea to further her personal directing style and manner of storytelling.
The aforementioned four sequences are all very similar - purposefully so - in order to employ the age-old comic tool of repetition. The encounters of Sayako are indeed humorous in their own right, but when it is pointed out for the third time that she seems like an economically challenged person, you can’t help but chuckle even harder.
The slow-building momentum makes the repetitive comedy work even better. At the same time, it effectively develops Sayako’s character in a manner that makes her gradually more relatable.
A Rent-A-Cat Production
Compared to the director's earlier films, Rent-A-Cat doesn’t really require any in-depth knowledge of Japanese society or mannerisms to be fully appreciated. Rather than relying on such concepts, Ogigami employs her rock-solid filmmaking formula and elaborates on it with quirky comedy.
As usual, she tells her story through memorable characters, wonderful cinematography, and a low-key score. Rent-A-Cat might be her most comic film to date, but probably also her most commercially viable production. It has heart, humor, great dialogue and is very well made in all respects of film-making.
The performance of lead actor Mikako Ichikawa deserves extra attention. She is best known for her supporting roles in Glasses (2007) and Memories of Matsuko (2006). Here she is finally given the chance to show off her acting capabilities.
Rent-A-Cat is carried effortlessly on Ichikawa’s shoulders. Her quirky demeanor and style fit perfectly within Ogigami’s universe. Together they make this film a magical moment in both their careers.
Reading Between the Threads of Yarn
So what can a film about an outcast girl, in a house full of cats, tell us about anything? That cats are adorable? That people find happiness in the strangest places? Or perhaps rather, that goodness can be found in the strangest of people.
Japan is well known for its abundance of people who shut themself away from society (Hikikomori). It is also a well-known fact that many Japanese people live in solitude for various reasons, like extreme overwork (Karoshi) or various social phobias.
Sayako does not fall in these categories, but she is certainly not living a social life. Interestingly, her four encounters with so-called normal people, prove that she - the oddly looking one - might very well be the most normal of the lot. At least she is open about her peculiarity, whereas her customers hide their craziness behind masks of normalcy.
Perhaps the message simply is: Don't be so quick to judge. It is not easy for an odd-girl-out like Sayako - with a unique individuality - to get by in a society built on conformity. Still, she seems both more content and confident than any of the conformists. Being true to yourself certainly seems more honest, but it does make the comedy somewhat bittersweet.
Final Verdict of Rent-A-Cat
Whether you are familiar with Ogigami’s films or not, this is a no-brainer. Anyone interested in Japanese cinema should do themselves a favor and check out Rent-A-Cat. The fact that cats play a major role in the movie surely came with an extra challenge for the production team, but at the same time, the atmosphere and tone of the film became something quite unique.
Genkinahito: Rentaneko Rent-a-Cat レンタネコ (2012) Dir: Naoko Ogigami
The Japan Times: 'Rentaneko (Rent-a-Cat)'