Man’s second-best friend? – Frank McNally on a cinematic tribute to cats

Cats are natural film stars

At a cinema in Dublin on Thursday evening, I attended the Irish premiere of a funny, moving, and rather beautiful new film.

If I told you it was a two-hour Japanese documentary about cats, with no voiceovers or musical soundtrack and directed by a man who didn’t know what it was about until he was well into editing, you probably wouldn’t be in any rush to book tickets.

But that may be just as well in this case, because The Cats of Gokogu Shrine was screened for the opening night of the East Asia Film Festival at the IFI, will not be shown again during that event, and has no certainty of any general release here.

If you want to see it, you may be reduced to buying or renting it from the director’s website (kazuhirosoda.com). And if you love cats, or life, or preferably both, it’s much recommended.

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The work (and existence) of Kazuhiro Soda had somehow eluded me until now. But in an enthralling stage interview afterwards, amusing and profound, he outlined the “10 Commandments” by which he produces his observational documentaries. I paraphrase as follows.

1. Never do any research beforehand.

2. Never hold advance meetings with the film’s subjects.

3. Don’t write scripts.

4. Always roll the camera yourself.

5. Always shoot as long as possible, because interesting things are sure to happen as soon as you stop.

6. Cover small areas deeply.

7. Never settle on a theme or objective before editing.

8. Avoid narration, super-imposed titles, and music.

9. Use long takes.

10. (This one is controversial with his wife, he admitted). Always pay for the production yourself. That’s the only way you retain control.

Number 7 may have been the keynote to The Cats of Gokogu Shrine. The film was shot entirely within about 200 metres radius of a Shinto shrine, where street cats and people came and went, interacting spontaneously with the camera and the man behind it, in ways meaningful or banal.

Cats are of course natural film stars: with famously photogenic eyes, great stage presence, and a limited but and proven talent for improvisational comedy. Hence their enormous success on the internet where, while still refusing to learn tricks, they consistently outperform dogs.

The people in the documentary, by contrast, were not always as stellar. Japan being Japan, many were very elderly and some were volunteer public gardeners, who had a tetchy relationship with the cats, because of the species’ well-known tendency to make unsolicited contributions of fertiliser to horticulturists everywhere.

But even if he only realised it while editing, the director had some deeper points to make too, including one about the general human intolerance for such inconveniences as wildlife.

Above all, his film is an artist’s reflection on the cycle of death and rebirth. In which vein, a couple of late and unexpected plot developments dramatically vindicate his commandment to keep shooting as long as possible.

***

Artists have long found inspiration in cats, as the ninth-century poem Pangur Bán reminds us. That was written in Old Irish by a monk at Reichenau Abbey, in what is now Germany, when he was supposed to be doing something more important.

At any rate he wrote it on a notebook that also contains “notes from a commentary of the Aeneid, some hymns, a brief glossary of Greek words ... notes on biblical places, a tract on the nature of angels, and some astronomy.”

Amid all this serious scholarship, however, the monk is distracted by the doings of his cat, whose name means “White Pangur” (pangur, apparently, being an old Irish word for ‘fuller’: a processor of woven wool), and recognises certain similarities between them.

Hence a typical verse, as translated by Robin Flower: “Oftentimes a mouse will stray/In the hero Pangur’s way;/Oftentimes my keen thought set/Takes a meaning in its net.”

The man who wrote the poem is officially unknown. The cat’s fame, by contrast, continues to grow. As of 2022, I learned recently, it now has a newly discovered (but long extinct) species of mammal named after it.

Remains of the sabre-toothed nimravid – a puma-sized cat-like creature that lived about 38 million years ago – were discovered among the fossil collection of San Diego’s Natural History Museum in 2021.

One of the scientists who identified it then chose the name in honour of his old English teacher at Augustana College, a Dr McDowell, who had taught the poem Pangur Bán. “I never lost my love for literature and history, kindled at Augustana,” said the scientist, explaining why he had called the fossil after “that same literary cat”.

Mind you, the monastery pet’s name has lost its fada in the process and has also been merged into one word, making it sound more like a street cat than the original would have been.

As immortalised by the new species, it is now “Pangurban.”

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