If Cats Disappeared From The World (2016) by Akira Nagai
Review by Andrew Swafford
Disclaimer: I speak English as my primary and only language, and am currently exploring Japan with my also non-Japanese-speaking partner. As I’m writing about a movie that is only available in unsubbed Japanese, it is unavoidable that my perspective as an outsider and English speaker will tint this piece, which may also be vaguely reminiscent of travel journalism (sorry). Nevertheless, as a cinephile and a Cinematary participant who was fascinated by Lydia Creech’s episode on “The Japanese Moviegoing Experience,” I was really excited by the prospect of getting to watch a film I’d never have the opportunity to otherwise, as well as to see what variations on the theatrical context I’d be treated to in Tokyo.
The aspects of cinemagoing that struck me as different from what we tend to experience in the states were as follows: higher prices, many Hollywood movies from 5-6 months ago (like The Revenant) just now getting their first Japanese run, getting to pick my specific seat when buying tickets, the audience being very strict adherents to the “no talking, no cell phones” code while the lights are down, audience members remaining seated/silent for the entire credits, and some bitchingly handy popcorn/candy/soda holders that sit in your seat’s cupholder and swivel back and forth between a pair of seats.
But as for what I’d get to actually “see” in Japan that was unique to the region, there was really no question--it had to be If Cats Disappeared From the World, a film with a title that might as well be a clickbait headline, and I couldn’t resist. As penance for having embarassingly watched Tom Cruise as The Last Samurai’s white savior in a traditional Ryokan inn the night before, my partner and I went into Akira Nagai’s If Cat’s Disappeared From the World blind--or deaf, as it were--knowing full well that we wouldn’t be able to follow any of the unsubbed Japanese dialogue. The prospect didn’t bother us, as we weren’t exactly looking for a super artistic or intellectual experience; we just wanted to have a slightly ridiculous and amusing time with a movie whose title promised just that.
As it turns out, If Cats Disappeared From the World is ridiculous and amusing enough, but it’s also surprisingly powerful, and was able to communicate its ideas and emotions solely through cinematic style. Despite the fact that I haven’t gotten the full (subtitled) experience yet, I can already tell through this sensory-deprived viewing that If Cats Disappeared From the World is a legitimately good movie that utilizes universally understandable cinematic techniques like character blocking, color palettes, and music to tell a story that feels steeped in the history of cinema, making references to Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin while feeling inspired by other legends like Frank Capra and Wong Kar Wai.
The Capra bit comes primarily from the It’s a Wonderful Life-esque premise, which involves a young man in his mid-20s who learns he is about to die, but is offered a divine/diabolical chance to extend his life by choosing a non-human thing to obliterate from existence in his place. (If it doesn’t sound like Capra just yet, bear with me for a while.) The man then witnesses visions of how his past experience would have been impacted by the absence of certain objects. First, phones vanish, perhaps in an attempt to get people to look up and interact with each other in public once in a while. This has the unfortunate side effect of making his past relationship unable to come to fruition, as he and his ex-girlfriend got to know each other primarily through phone calls and texting. Even though the relationship ended tragically and still scars the man’s heart, the whole “tis-better-to-have-loved-and-lost-etc.” thing wins out, and telephones get to ring another day.
Next, movies vanish, and the man’s recently estranged relationship with a school-film-buff-turned-video-store-clerk goes down the tubes as well, making this an equally painful omission (of course!). The third disappeared entity becomes clocks, as the protagonist’s father was a workaholic clockmaker who never spent enough time with his family. This also rings about unintended negative repercussions, and time marches on, so to speak. The next thing the protagonist considers erasing to save himself personal pain is, as the title suggests, cats. I’ll leave you hanging there to avoid giving away the film’s conclusion, but hopefully I’ve made this movie’s memory-induced parallel universe mechanic clear.
As far as premises and conflicts go, this is a pretty unwieldy one. The structure is highly unconventional, with convoluted, messy, and numerous timelines that would be difficult to make clear to an audience under any circumstances. But If Cats Disappeared, amazingly, does. Even I, lacking the ability to comprehend its dialogue, was able to follow the film’s plot beats without much trouble, thanks to how much information is communicated nonverbally by director Akira Nagai.
One element of this is character blocking--where the players are placed spatially in relation to each other--which the film consistently employs to purposeful effect. How characters feel about each other, how well they know each other, and the nature of their relationship is always established through blocking (which may very well be true for most movies, but it was especially effective/helpful here). When the protagonist meets the aforementioned film buff at school, their first interaction takes place from across multiple rows of desks, with the cinephile on a higher level of altitude as the main character, highlighting both their lack of intimacy with each other as yet and the film guy’s holier-than-thou attitude and vast knowledge-base that the protagonist simply can’t stack up to. Later, when they are seated together at a cafeteria table, their distance has decreased quite a bit, and multiple smash cuts between moments in which seminal movies are borrowed and returned shows the stairstep-like approach the protagonist takes to forming this friendship. (Incidentally, this is the moment where the film most shows how cinematically well-read it is, pulling from many times and places throughout movie history by dropping direct references to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, among others.)
If you’ll allow me one more example, there’s also a moment in which the protagonist and his ex-girlfriend are meeting up outside of a theater, standing at a safe distance from each other to avoid feeling pulled back in--but a movie poster hands equidistant from both in the background, visually showing the way that movies have served as a thread to hold them together when they were still a couple, as flashed-back to later on.
I wanted to mention that post-breakup scene and its respective pre-breakup flashback because they’re also illustrative of another piece of cinematic style that If Cats Disappeared uses to its advantage, and that’s color. For moments like the former when we see the protagonist spending time with people he is estranged from (or more often, all alone), the colors on screen are are sleek and poetically dull, with a muted color palette mostly formed from dull greys and moody blues, reflecting his morose emotional state as he deals with mortality and failed relationships. (These scenes feel very informed by Wong Kar Wai to me, if that helps.) In flashback, however, like when we see him meet his girlfriend, or when they take a trip together to Buenos Aires (this felt slightly random to me), the colors become loud and vibrant, the screen being dominated by bright greens, reds, oranges, and yellows (reminding me a bit of Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). It may seem a bit basic and elementary as far as mise-en-scene goes, but the visual dichotomy in If Cats Disappeared between the melancholic present and the blissful past was extremely helpful to me as a basically-deaf viewer in the task of parsing out when and where I was in the film’s plethora of parallel universe timelines of memory and possibility.
I wasn’t truly deaf, of course, because Nagai’s audio cues are paramount to the film’s universal storytelling techniques as well. Just like the low-contrast/high-contrast split in the film’s color scheme, the music has multiple faces as well. In the grey, somber moments of present-day existence, the score of If Cats Disappeared consists of solo piano playing slowly and patiently on a nostalgically plaintive barely-major-scale. As with the film’s look in these moments, the sound is beautiful and poetic, but always tinged with sadness and solitude. In contrast, moments of happiness and fellowship in flashback are given a pleasantly driving beat and inspirational/uplifting synthesizer leads.
There’s one interesting variation on this audio dichotomy, though, which occurs when the protagonist is visited by the supernatural doppelgänger who offers him the chance to extend his life. In these moments, the music shifts to a digitally manipulated reverse piano score, indicating to poor confused Anglo-souls in the audience that something quite strange and supernatural is going on here. Were it not for the film’s three basic musical motifs outlined here, I probably would have had a hard time discerning past from present, as well as imagined realities from the primary and most-real one.
I again feel compelled to acknowledge that, of course, MOST good movies probably use these nonverbal cues to help tell their stories in a visceral and intuitive way. But two things seem important to note: (1) most of the time, we are so immersed in the world of a film that we don’t notice them, so it was eye opening to me to have/get to focus on these techniques AS techniques; (2) not all movies are good, often due to neglecting the universal power of the nonverbal. Seeing visual communication represented so strongly in If Cats Disappeared is really all I need to know that it’s truly a good, effective film.
When the movie ended, the majority of cinemagoers in my audience were in tears, a stark contrast to the stoic and hardened city-dwellers I had encountered in Tokyo’s overpacked train cars and punishingly long, crowded sidewalks. While I may have been too focused on decoding the narrative through audio/visual cues to be able to be swept away as much emotionally, I was absolutely left with plenty of emotional substance to dwell upon during and after If Cats Disappeared From the World.
The methodical working-through of the movie’s premise, like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life or Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, offers a charmingly melodramatic opportunity to reflect on one’s own life and the value of personal relationships--and in this case, the often unsung importance that non-human objects bring to our families, friendships, and romances. In the film, movies brought the protagonist closer to his best friend as well as his partner, which has absolutely been the case for the majority of people in my own life at the moment.
The film also works as a pretty affectionate sideways glance at the capacity of phones and technology to bring two people into greater levels of intimacy (Nathan talked about this on an episode in relation to Chantal Ackerman’s No Home Movie). This is especially refreshing in a broader artistic landscape that, understandably, highlights the ways that new tech can open up horrifying new ways for us to tear ourselves further apart (Zach’s write-up on Eye in the Sky is a good exploration of this also-valid idea).
I have to say that even without purview of the movie’s script or how well/not-well it was delivered by its actors, I think that If Cats Disappeared is a powerful little film that is cinematically studied in its execution, making it really effective at striking an emotional chord with its audience--even those that don’t technically speak its language. I very much hope that the film gets some sort of subbed release stateside (maybe even by Public Cinema??), because I would love to experience its topsy-turvy sentimentality again.