Reviews

Japan Cuts Review: Rent-a-Cat

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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

To know whether or not you’re going to like Rent-a-Cat, you need only ask yourself one question: do you like cats? If you do, you will find the film to be charming and wonderful and like a (sort of) narrative version of every Youtube video you’ve ever seen.

If you don’t, there is something horribly, terribly wrong with you, and maybe Rent-a-Cat will revive your cold, dead heart. Or maybe give you a heart where before there was only blackness.

Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko | レンタネコ)
Director: Naoko Ogigami
Rating: NR
Country: Japan 

Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is a (rather young) crazy cat lady. It’s not entirely her fault; cats just like her and congregate around her. But she also loves them, keeps them, and takes care of them. Her house is full of cats, all of which are absolutely adorable in every way. She also rents them out to people, because some people just need a cat sometimes. She takes her pull cart, fills it with cats, and walks down a path with a megaphone announcing her presence and intentions: “Rent aaaaaaaaaaaa neko!” If she finds a suitably lonely person, she gives them an inspection and either accepts or rejects them as the new, temporary owner based on that. 

And that’s basically the movie. If you’re looking for some kind of compelling plot about a young woman who rents out a cat to some terrible person and then has to go save it from the clutches of evil, you won’t find it here. In fact, you won’t find any real plot here. I would say that approximately eight things happen in the entire film, and all of them are related to the renting of cats. Thing number one happens when Sayoko rents out the first cat, number two happens when she gets the cat back, etc. It’s not clear what else she does or how she makes any money, because she doesn’t rent out very many cats and she rents them at unsustainable prices. There are the occasional references (and flashbacks) to Sayoko’s life beyond the cat-renting business, but they’re vague and don’t do much to give any kind of depth to her character.

Her only real goal in the film (and it’s one that is never realized) is to find a husband. Her weird neighbor periodically pops up to tell her about how weird she is and how nobody would ever marry her. It makes her feel sad, and she puts up on her wall the goal to get married. As I said, though, nothing ever comes of it. In fact, she doesn’t even try. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up. In fact, the goal is almost a MacGuffin. There are moments where it seems like some kind of connection could take place (and by connection I mean she actually comes in contact with a male of similar age), and then… nothing. More than anything, it’s just kind of weird.

Rent-a-Cat Rentaneko

But I’m doing the film a disservice by talking about it that way. Those paragraphs make it seem like I didn’t absolutely adore the film and its characters, which is so very wrong. But I wanted to tell you exactly what you’re getting into, so you have no false expectations. You should be able to sit back and take in the loveliness of the whole thing. And it is so, so lovely. In fact, Rent-a-Cat is probably the loveliest film I’ve seen all year. 

Obviously, a large part of that loveliness comes from the cats. Cats are cute, period. Anyone who says otherwise is a heathen of some sort. Because everything in Sayoko’s life involves cats, cats are everywhere in the film. In the early scenes, they are just there in the background of her life, being cute. And maybe that’s why the plot was never made to be important, because no one would have paid attention to it anyway. Right at the beginning, the cats are at their cutest. Sayoko goes about her daily life, bringing pineapples to her deceased grandmother or whatever, and cats are just there, doing cat things. No one in the audience was paying too much attention to Sayoko while two cats were play-fighting (or real-fighting, I have no idea) in the background. I know that, because everyone in the audience was laughing and “awww”ing at the cats’ antics. This held true for much of the film, although there were times when the film’s conversations were able to overpower the cuteness.

Which is good, because a lot of the dialogue is very funny. Beyond the wonderfulness of cats doing whatever, Sayoko’s interactions with lonely people in need of cats (LPiNoCs) are all very cute and very funny. They’re a pretty varied bunch, but they all have pretty similar needs, and when one scene began to play out identically to an earlier scene, I thought that something had gone wrong with the editing process. Instead, it was almost like the Joker’s scars: you never really knew what was real. I liked that, though, and it allowed for some gags which almost worked like Family Guy cutaways. They were bizarre, funny, and I’m not entirely sure where they actually fit into Sayoko’s daily schedule. 

Rentaneko Rent-a-Cat Japanese movie

Nonetheless, there can become a point where even the adorableness wears thin, and Rent-a-Cat almost reaches that point. The film is 110 minutes long, which is at least 20 minutes too long for a movie without a plot. I didn’t realize how long it was and was thinking that it felt incredibly long for a 90-minute movie. Finding out that it was actually longer than I thought it was helped a little bit, but the film needed some more editing. The flashbacks could have been cut entirely, and I think some of the longer shots could have been shortened, even if I did enjoy them quite a bit.

It’s a shame, because if it were shorter, I think that Rent-a-Cat would have been my favorite film of the festival (and NYAFF as well). As it currently stands, it’s just in my Top 5. Given how amazing some of the films have been, that’s still damn high praise, but I can’t get over the feeling that this could have been so much more. Everything that is in Rent-a-Cat is fantastic. I laughed, I “awww”ed, and I just generally loved what I was watching. But there were missed opportunities. There were things that could have (and should have) been done to tighten it up a little bit. But don’t take that to think for a moment that I don’t wholeheartedly recommend Rent-a-Cat. I do. It’s one of a very small number of truly original ideas at Japan Cuts, and it blows almost all of the adaptations out of the water.

And it’s got cats. So many cats. Cats cats cats cats cats cats cats cats cats.

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