The high density apartment living experienced by many Japanese people makes it difficult for most people to own and care for pets. This has led to the popularity of cat cafes – venues where customers can visit and play with domestic cats for a fee – as well as what seems close to its own genre of Japanese feature films about cats. Isshin Inudo’s Gu Gu the Cat (2008) adapts a popular manga about an artist who adopts a stray cat. Naoki Ogigami’s Rent-a-Cat (2012) follows a woman with a cart full of cats, loaning them out people in times of sadness or emotional need. Yoshitaka Yamaguchi and Takeshi Watanabe’s Neko Samurai (2014) goes so far as to pair a cat with a samurai in feudal Japan. Put simply, if you have an interest in both Japanese culture and Japanese cats then their cinema has you covered. Hikaru Okita’s Cat Cafe (2018) goes a step further in being a Japanese film about a cat cafe.
Sadly the potential in Cat Cafe dissipates from the first minute. Lazily composed and weakly presented, this represents filmmaking at its lowest possible level of complexity and charm. It is, quite simply, a waste of the viewer’s time.
The film is broken into four 22-minute chapters, so evenly distributed that it seems possible that this is not a feature film at all. Were I to learn that Cat Cafe was a collection of four unbroadcast television episodes, rejected by their broadcaster due to lack of quality, I would not be in the least surprised. The film visibly lacks the budget to afford a cast: day or night, the cat cafe only ever has one customer at a time. Add in the poor sound quality and the washed-out shot-on-video aesthetic and you have a near-unwatchable chore on a bluray disc.
Cat Cafe follows Sakura (Yurika Kubo), the manager of the titular cafe, as she uses her cats to solve the problems of visitors to her Akirahabara venue. Whether it is an underconfident idol singer (Shiho Namiki) contemplating quitting her group, or a doting father (Yusaku Kotegawa) crippled by ailurophobia, or an adult daughter struggling with her mother’s growing dementia, Sakura has a cat for every occasion. Each episode is thinly drawn and superficially presented. The insights gained are not likely the ones intended, such as just how appalling it is to be an idol singer, or the state of mental health care in Japan.
There is absolutely potential for a feature film based around a cat cafe; it is a solid framework to bring all manner of characters through the door, and is open to a wide range of potential storylines, but the idea of devoting 22 minutes to each story threads simply leads to weak and lazy writing and a raft of missed opportunities. Thankfully it seems there is no stopping the ongoing run of films about cats. No doubt another cat cafe-themed film will be right around the corner.