by Souky De Wolf
“Feeling lonely? I’ll lend you a cat.”
Along the riverbank, a woman is pulling a cart with six felines, a shopping bag and a parasol. In her best street vendor voice, she lures lonely cat lovers with her megaphone. We’re four minutes into Naoko Ogigami’s Rent-a-cat (2012), a film that feels like warm cocoa on a rainy day, and will cure any heartache in 110 minutes. Inspired by a fellow ailurophile who had recently lost his beloved pet and wasn’t yet ready to commit to another one, the Japanese writer-director created a film about collective loneliness and its fluffy remedy.
Narratively, Ogigami’s films usually fit in the same dialectic mold: an outsider challenges the values of a community and tries to blend into said community. Kamome Diner (2006), for example, shows Sachie, a Japanese spinster operating a diner in Helsinki, trying to enthuse the Fins over simple Japanese food, but (initially) failing to attract customers. In Yoshino’s Barber Shop (2004), a new kid in town challenges the local tradition of imposing a ridiculous mushroom-like hairstyle on every schoolboy, overthrowing the politics of sameness and building – through a small revolution – a sense of individuality and harmony within the town. In her films,Ogigami brings together a bunch of lovable misfits, possibly with Close Knit (2017) as a culmination of that idea: a transwoman finding a family, including a surrogate daughter who is more than willing to squirt dishwasher soap in the eyes of transphobic moms at the supermarket. The filmmaker sees kindness as a strength, never a weakness.
Rent-a-cat, however, drifts away from this premise, and feels tonally different from the rest of Ogigami’s oeuvre. The film is episodic, and every vignette is a variation on the previous storyline. Rent-a-cat is explicitly repetitive, possibly even more so than Kamome Diner, where we encounter seemingly endless variations on a scene with just the diner’s (slowly growing) clientele. Rent-a-cat, however, repeats its entire structure exactly four times, and doesn’t bother with community-building, but instead finds comfort in perpetual solitude. There’s less of a narrative arc; the film functions more like a slice of life, with personal growth, but sans the initial culture clash and the subsequent gradual convergence into a community that typifies her other films. However, some details do echo previous Ogigami-isms, like working with the same set of actors (here: Ken Mitsuishi and Mikako Ichikawa) and bonding through (foreign) food: Sayoko gets offered American donuts in a car dealership and has her first lunch with an actual person since her grandma died two years ago. And cats, of course. In her words, “I always intend to put a cat in at least one scene of all my films as sort of a good luck charm”[i]
Apparently, the stigma around cats and single women is a worldwide phenomenon, pointed out to hilarious effect in Rent-a-cat. With her fearless fashion sense, abundance of cats and lack of a steady job, Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is the quintessential crazy cat lady. She’s “a person who attracts cats. That sounds nice. But a person who only attracts cats? That’s a problem.” And thus, a poster with the imperative “this year I will get married” adorns her living room wall. Throughout the film, the addenda “Don’t just look at faces!” and “No time to decide. +/- 15 year age range ok.” complete her bucket list triptych. It’s unclear if Sayoko actually wants to get married; she seems more preoccupied with the hypothetical honeymoon to Hawaii that comes with it. Her marriage fantasy feels mainly driven by external pressure, manifested in her nosy neighbour (Katsuya Kobayashi in drag) who likes to harass her with comments about her looks and her lack of a husband; something Ogigami went through herself when she came back to Japan after her film studies in California: “the people and the neighbours were looking at me and thinking: “She is a loser” because I was staying at home and I didn’t have a job or a husband […] when I got a boyfriend and we went on living together, then all of a sudden everything was fine [laugh]”[ii].
At the centre of every Ogigami film – except for Toilet (2010), unless you think of the deceased mom as the epicentre – there’s a vital, financially independent, slightly stubborn and single woman. Funnily enough, Toilet is Ogigami’s only film that doesn’t have a Japanese character as the central figure, or a woman, for that matter. Even the weirdo Sayoko seems wise beyond her age, strong, independent and determined. In an interview with Screenarchy, Ogigami expressed her desire to capture her lead actress Mikako Ichikawa around the time where she was in her early thirties, boyishly looking but already a seasoned actress, childishly innocent yet mature in her craft[iii]. This combination of sophistication and playfulness is what makes Sayoko a delight to watch: she finds joy in mundane tasks like laundry, crafts water slides for noodles and lets her cats democratically vote on a very important case of dry food versus wet food. She’s also incredibly benevolent and thoughtful; ready to fill the holes in everyone’s hearts (with cats, of course).
While Ogigami calls her films – with the exception of Close Knit – “almost fantasy,” Rent-a-cat is the first one that feels explicitly so. There are narrative improbabilities in all her films, especially financially. Generally, Ogigami-characters are astonishingly terrible at making money. In Glasses (2007), for example, when Taeko – the lead – arrives at the remote Hamada Inn, the owner tells her she’s the first Spring customer in three years, and still he somehow manages to neglect some of her needs. In Kamome Diner, the only customer – a Finnish boy who’s learning Japanese- gets a lifetime of free coffee because he’s the first customer to ever walk into Sachie’s diner. As you might notice, Ogigami characters are also horrible business owners (except for barber Yoshino in Yoshino’s Barber Shop; she’s a mastermind). In Toilet, three people seem to financially survive without any income whatsoever. Their independence is almost a miracle. And remarkably, no-one has troubles scraping by; money is never an issue. Rent-a-cat seems especially conscious about the provided monetary loophole. When realising how little money Rent-a-cat’s Sayoko asks for her service, the following conversation unfolds (three times):
“But, will you be ok? Can you get by?”
“ Do I look like I’m having trouble getting by?”
“Just a little. And your job is so unusual…”
“Oh, no! I’m doing fine! I have another steady job besides my rent-a-cat business”
“What kind of job?”
The answer to that question varies.
1 – The first time, when she visits an older lady who’s recently lost a cat but finds herself too old to buy another one, Sayoko replies, “Stocks. I trade millions of dollars’ worth every day […] Stock trading is all I’ve been good at since I was young.” Right after she leaves her new renter’s house, we see her, at her computer, buying stocks with the advice of one of her cats.
2 – The second time, Sayoko is with a man who’s been away from his family for 6 years because of work and who feels incredibly lonely now that he has deduced his daughter isn’t exactly happy that he is coming back. Sayoko tells him, “I’m a fortune teller. I’m famous for my amazing accuracy. They call me the Mother of Tamagawa […] Fortune telling is all I’ve been good at since I was young.” Upon asking if she could read his fortune, she answers: “I’m in high demand, so you’d have to get in line. It’s about an hour wait.” Back home, there’s a queue of people, barefoot, ready for a cat to stomp on a tarot card and reveal their darkest secrets.
3 – The third time, she meets a lonely car rental employee who; like Sayoko, hasn’t found love yet, and decides not to rent a cat until she does. When she asks about Sayoko’s financial situation, Sayoko replies, “I write tv commercial jingles […] Music’s been all I’ve been good at since I was young.” Cut to Sayako in her pyjamas, a cat on a synthesizer and the worst sound mix you’ve ever heard.
(4 – The fourth time, she meets an old friend. He’s a chronic liar as well.)
Whether for magical realism or comedic effect, Rent-a-cat takes improbability up a notch. In a heat-induced nightmare, Sayoko finds a fellow cat renter, who classifies cats in 3 categories with corresponding price ranges. When she, out of pride and pettiness buys a class C cat for a class A price, she wakes up in a sweat. During her third sales tour with her cat-filled cart, Sayoko stops at a cabin with a sign screaming “WIN A TRIP TO HAWAII” and, dreaming of her honeymoon, enters the building. The inside appears to be exactly like the cat rental in Sayoko’s dreams, and even the saleswoman looks identical. She tells Sayoko that only customers are able to enter the contest, and that she can rent a car from class A, B, or C. Sayoko decides to rent a class C car for an class A price (the women also figure out that they are C class people with A cups, and that they shouldn’t put everything in classes. The saleswomen admits to being lonely, and rents a cat. After a while, she calls Sayoko to take the cat back home; she rented a car from her own company and won the trip to Hawaii.
Naoko Ogigami is a master of pace: she manages to be slow and repetitive without being dull, and her sense of comedic timing is impeccable (the silly jokes in Yoshino’s Barber Shop aside). The films are sweet and soft but not necessarily corny; light-spirited and compassionately political but never frivolous nor flimsy. Her humour is light and a bit dorky (in Glasses (2007), the titular common denominator is that everybody wears glasses, for example). Ogigami’s films bundle small moments that make life worth it. While always open-ended, her work carries a promise for a better future: “Instead of me posing a conclusion, I want to keep it open-ended, so that the audience can feel and enjoy the ambiance of the end and think about what’s next”[iv]. For Rent-a-cat, that might be collective solitude, and a fuckton of cats.