The Neko Atsume Movie Is Way Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

8.5
  • Comedy
  • Reality
2017-04-08
Neko_Atsume_no_Ie-p1
Movie poster for Neko Atsume. (c) AMG Entertainment

If you’re a New Yorker or foreign film fan, you may be aware of the Japan Cuts film festival, hosted by the Japan Society. Currently in its eleventh year, it’s brought over a smattering of Japan’s latest and finest film ventures for connoisseurs to enjoy.

But I’m no connoisseur: I’m just a pleb who likes cats. When I checked out the programming for Japan Cuts and realized that the Neko Atsume movie was part of it, I purchased tickets with lightning speed for what wound up to be a sold-out show. How the heck do you make a movie about a smartphone app work? By grafting on a relatable, grounded story, it turns out.

The director, Masatoshi Kurakata, said, “I wanted to make a simple movie that gives off feelings of warmth. I and the staff and cast of the film really put our hearts into making the film.” I’m astounded by how well he succeeded. This might well be the best video game movie adaptation to date… even if the video game in question is “just” a cat collecting game on smartphones.

Neko Atsume succeeds by telling a good-humored, appealing story of one writer’s creative resurgence… and love of cats. Atsushi Ito (who played the otaku love interest in one of my favorite J-dramas, Densha Otoko) plays novelist Katsu Sakamoto, a quiet guy who debuted with a bang but is terrified of a slide into mediocrity that he can’t seem to stop. Sakamoto’s early success is more of a shackle to him now as he watches other colleagues burst into superstardom and gets chastised by his editors for a serialized story that isn’t going anywhere.

When he takes his senior editor’s advice to turn the protagonist of his slow-paced literary story into a zombie, the public reaction is awful, as he expected it would be. But by this point, Sakamoto’s moved out into the country, into a small house that happens to be a local cat magnet. At first he tries to resist, but who could? Rather than spend hour after hour pounding Red Bulls and staring at an empty word processor, Sakamoto starts setting up the yard to be more cat-friendly using items Neko Atsume fans will recognize.

We start to see Sakamoto really smile, a happiness that fuels the slow regeneration of his creative drive. When his story at the magazine is cancelled, he takes the news with grace and delivers a final chapter that moves his junior editor to tears as she reads it on the way home. Where once he raged, he now copes gracefully and moves ahead to the next task: paying rent.

Sakamoto gets a job at the local cat supply store, where Tae Kimura plays Yoko, the hilarious owner who seems more than a bit cat-like herself. The moment where she bumps up against Sakamoto to indicate how a friendly cat will rub on you is too funny, as is the part where she sternly tells Sakamoto that cats, like women, can see right through a fake laugh.

Sakamoto’s nervous at his first retail job but gets the hang of it. Eventually, he starts to make a scrapbook of the cats that visit his yard, printing their photos and writing cute little notes about them in a fashion any Neko Atsume player will recognize.

The junior editor, Michiru Towada (played by Shiori Kutsuna), visits Sakamoto faithfully to retrieve his manuscript chapters every week. She has her own plot as she struggles to find her footing both as an editor and with him: should she nag him or leave him alone? Should she tell him her honest thoughts or simply collect his manuscript and go? Is she at least partly responsible for his implosion, for not speaking up louder against the zombie twist, for not fighting hard enough during company meetings to keep him on? What can she do to help?

After Sakamoto’s break, she visits to tell him, in the most heartwarming possible way, that his books have always been there for her. By the way? Cats have always been there for Sakamoto, too; his blockbuster debut features a cat on the very first page. Ultimately, Sakamoto starts work on a new project titled Cat House and sends it over to his editors. Towada has had a child by this point and reads his new novel while sitting in her hospital bed. Her senior editor tells her with a smile that Sakamoto’s book is really, really good, and we end with beautiful shots of kitties playing.

Is the Neko Atsume movie the kind of thing that will wow critics, blow away the cinematic establishment and start a whole new era in film? I don’t know about all that. Some folks may find Sakamoto’s story too mawkishly sentimental, may be turned off by the Neko Atsume easter eggs, might not care for Towada’s story or may not be charmed by the movie’s sense of humor. There are some pacing issues; I thought the movie ended like three times before it actually did. There are some goofy shots; Towada’s single tear as she reads the last chapter of Sakamoto’s story is in inexplicable slo-mo.

But Neko Atsume is broadly appealing, not only because the cats are super cute and every shot of them playing is magical, but because the story of a creative person losing their mojo and getting it back through hard work, hard rest, and kittens is pleasing to watch. We want to see Sakamoto succeed and feel better, and he does. We want to see Towada’s faith in Sakamoto rewarded, and it is. We want to see cats, and we do. The whole Neko Atsume tie-in is just a bonus around a familiar story told with enough humor and spirit to keep it from bogging down too seriously. Watching Neko Atsume is a joyous, pleasant experience, and I was sorry to leave its bright, gentle world.

The Neko Atsume movie released in Japan on April 8, though there’s no word yet on any kind of international release.

PS: The film’s web site has a gallery (or “nya-llery,” after the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes) here with loving YouTube vids and photos of all the cats. You’re welcome!

 

REVIEW SUMMARY
Neko Atsume House
8.5
The Neko Atsume Movie Is Way Better Than It Has Any Right To Be
Neko Atsume is broadly appealing, not only because the cats are super cute and every shot of them playing is magical, but because the story of a creative person losing their mojo and getting it back through hard work, hard rest, and kittens is pleasing to watch.
  • So many cute cats
  • Appealing and relatable story
  • Tae Kimura is hilarious as shop owner Yoko
  • Atsushi Ito is perfectly cast
  • Junior editor actually has plot of her own
  • No romances
  • Uneven pacing
  • More cats please
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