Director: Ogigami Naoko
Screenplay: Ogigami Naoko
Cinematography: Abe Kazutaka
Cast: Ichikawa Mikako, Kusamura Reiko, Mitsuishi Ken, Yamada Maho, Tanaka Kei, Kobayashi Katsuya
Runtime: 110 min
Film’s official website: N/a
Sayoko (Ichikawa Mikako) is a crazy cat lady in the making: although she is a little too young to be called a spinster (as per stereotype), she is an unmarried woman with a house full of cats and nothing much else. There is no boyfriend or husband in her life, indeed, she has no friends even and her only apparent relative, the grandmother who raised her, died two years ago – leaving Sayoko only with the cats and a permanently grumpy, elderly neighbour woman (played, bizarrely, by male actor Kobayashi Katsuya in drag). While the cats are Sayoko’s everything and filled the “hole in her heart” when her beloved obāchan died, she is still lonely, knowing too well that attracting only animals (as she does) but never people (as she doesn’t) isn’t all that good a thing, so she decides to rent out some of the kitties to people.
Wandering along the river bank towing a cart full of cats and shouting loudly, Sayako soon attracts the attention of passerbys and finds herself her first customer: an elderly lady, whose son never visits anymore and whose own cat died a while ago. Rather than handing over the cat immediately, Sayako first inspects the home of the woman, allowing viewers to learn the story behind her loneliness. The same approach is taken with each and every customer that Sayako has, with the lines uttered by characters being near-identical. Ogigami thus creates a film composed of little vignettes, individual stories of different people, assembled neatly together but with only one thread connecting them all: the main character herself. While the segmentation allows each person’s story to be told and concluded rather neatly, it makes the overall narrative feel less full. People appear fleetingly only, no lasting connections seem to be made, not even for Sayako. Although it’s not likely that she would befriend all her cat renters, one would imagine (and hope) that with some, even if only tentative, relationships would develop.
Ichikawa manages to bring the quirky Sayako, who is always dressed in bright clothing and unabashedly shouts out embarrassing phrases like “Are you lonely”, to life in a commendable manner. While the character does not make for a particularly challenging role, it does give the actress a chance to shine again, for although Ichikawa played some some leads early on in her career [such as in「ブルー」(Buru/Blue) in 2003], she has since then been mostly relegated to smaller, supporting roles or formed part of sensemble cast – something that, given both her talents and striking looks – has always seemed surprising to me (I confess: Ichikawa strikes me as the kind of actress that is suited to be a director’s muse rather than being underused in small roles.).
As likeable and as well-played as the protagonist of Rentaneko is, we know little more about her after nearly two hours of running time than we did at the beginning. Nothing much has happened and little new or certain has been revealed about Sayako – certain things we learn, e.g. about her ‘jobs’, only confirm that Sayoko is a peculiar person but leave us with the same kind of questions that the cat renters have. While this indefiniteness is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, the film still manages to be reasonably charming – Rentaneko is ultimately light on impact. Cat lovers should delight in it however, for there is hardly a frame without an adorable neko jumping or rolling about.
Overall verdict: Rent-a-Neko is a quirky and quite charming little film, but ultimately also feels light on impact, with the segmented approach that prevents any fuller relationships from being formed not really helping.
- Alternative reviews (some more enthusiastic than mine): Cine-Vue, Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, Isugoi.