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With filmmaker's helping hand, a destitute artist finds salvation

It should not have taken luck and a charitable filmmaker to save Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani.

In all the years he was homeless and handing out his colorful drawings on the streets of New York City, it's hard to believe that no one managed to dislodge Mirikitani from his own personal crack in the system. Even if the stubborn artist was determined to stay angry and lost, it's clear now that he could have been helped.

Which is why, whatever you think of Linda Hattendorf's documentary, "The Cats of Mirikitani," you have to applaud her humanitarianism. And yes, by the way, she's a pretty good filmmaker as well.

When Hattendorf met Mirikitani he was spending his nights in the plastic-covered entryway of a mini-mart in her SoHo neighborhood. It is there that the director begins her pointed and richly detailed story, showing the octogenarian hunched over portraits of cats and flowers that hint at his talented past, even if they aren't exactly the grand masterpieces he proclaims them to be.

Vintage photographs and old news footage help explain that Mirikitani was a promising 25-year-old when he was swept up in America's post-Pearl Harbor campaign to corral potential enemy sympathizers. Despite holding dual citizenship (he was born in Sacramento, Calif., and raised in Hiroshima, Japan), he spent several years in an internment camp that claimed hundreds of lives, including one young friend who shared his love of cats. Mirikitani emerged with a chip on his shoulder and without his US citizenship; after prolonged detention he eventually made his way to New York, where he survived by selling his artworks for just enough money to keep himself alive.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

As Lower Manhattan choked on the toxic dust of the World Trade Center, Hattendorf took the extraordinary step of inviting her subject in to share her cramped apartment and happy single life. Even more extraordinary, she let Mirikitani stay on for many months while she sorted through the keys to his independence.

Helped along by Joel Goodman's softly seductive musical compositions, "The Cats of Mirikitani" is a simply told tale of salvation and closure that avoids oversentimentalizing, even when its star is reunited with his only surviving sibling and journeys west for a poignant gathering at his internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

One can argue with some of Hattendorf's moviemaking choices: There's little originality in her straightforward documentary approach and little balance in her presentations of history or its parallels to modern-day events. But there's no denying her impressive conviction or the feel-good nature of watching Mirikitani regain his rightful place in society.

It takes a special first-time director to stick her neck out, personally as well as professionally. As much as anything else, "The Cats of Mirikitani" is a testament to good breeding.

'Related'

The Cats of Mirikitani

Directed by: Linda Hattendorf

In English and Japanese, with English subtitles

At: MFA, tonight and various dates through Sept. 1

Running time: 74 minutes

Rated: Unrated (language)

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