If Cats Disappeared from the World Suggests It’s a Wonderful Life If You Want It to Be
Fantasia Film Festival 2016
I know what you’re thinking. Would it really be so bad if if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats disappeared from existence? The answer is no, obviously, but those leotard-wearing jerks aren’t the cats in question. Instead, it’s our faithful feline friends being referred to in the title of the new Japanese film, If Cats Disappeared from the World, and they’re just one of the things at risk in this sweetly sentimental tearjerker.
An unnamed postman (Takeru Sato) in his early thirties is understandably devastated to be diagnosed with an inoperable and deadly brain tumor. Upon arriving home after hearing the news he’s greeted by his own doppelganger sitting on the couch. The visitor introduces himself, in essence, as the devil, and he tells the postman that he’s going to drop dead tomorrow.
The postman will get an extra day of life for each thing he allows the devil to remove from the world. Frightened and sad, he agrees to the deal and even suggests the first thing to go should be parsley. It’s not for him to choose though, and instead the devil says first up will be phones. The postman consents and uses the next day to visit his ex-girlfriend, Tsutaya (Aoi Miyazaki). They reconnect briefly and reminisce about their time together including how they first “met” after she called a wrong number – his number – and they proceeded to hit it off eventually falling in love.
The next day, in a slow fade, phones disappear from the world. People go about their business unaware that the items ever even existed, but the postman remembers. Worse, he realizes too late that a world without phones means he never met Tsutaya.
Akira Nagai’s film proceeds from there to explore the postman’s connections to other people and how those relationships disappear along with the objects in question. Through his memories and final days the film creates a vivid picture of a man fearful of his own death in part due to the earlier loss of his mother (Mieko Harada). The cats of the title come into play in his relationship with her from his childhood up through her final, pain-riddled days.
The second half of the film is heavier on the flashbacks and finds a slower, more methodical pace to tell its tale. One section follows the young couple’s trip to Argentina, and while it seems at first to meander the purpose comes clearer as the story winds down and returns to Japan. There’s value in those around us and in our memories of those who’ve gone away, and a fear of death is often a fear of being forgotten.
The film reminds in some ways of the beautiful Korean romance, Il Mare. Both films feature fantasy elements that seem constantly on the verge of crumbling with even the slightest examination, but more importantly, both films succeed despite that thanks to an overwhelmingly confident grasp on the emotional journey. Events seem silly, but the human element will have your eyes watering as you react to the screen and reflect on your own relationships. Young love, friendship, and the importance of art are given immense value here, both individually and in relation to the central theme which boils down to this – we’re all going to die, but what matters is how we live.
It’s a simple declaration, one explored in numerous films before this, but Nagai’s embrace of the concept is endlessly warm and honest, and yes, maybe a little bit manipulative too. If Cats Disappeared from the World shows an appreciation of death as a reflection of the life that precedes it, and if you want it to be, it’s a wonderful life indeed.