She and Her Cat: short visual haiku meditating on doomed romance, loneliness and alienation in an overwhelming industrial world

Makoto Shinkai, “She and Her Cat” (1999)

The debut animé film by Makoto Shinkai as director / animator / script-writer is a charming 5-minute morsel exploring doomed romance, loneliness and alienation. A stray cat, Chobi, is adopted by a young unnamed woman who lives alone in a block of flats. The woman cares for Chobi as best she can while not out to work and Chobi finds the life of pampered pet an excellent one. He makes friends with a young female cat, Mimi, who lives in the same neighbourhood and is infatuated with him but he declines her frequent marriage proposals: his heart is lost to his owner. Unfortunately for Chobi, his owner doesn’t quite reciprocate as she has concerns of her own. However in the autumn, the owner is shocked by a telephone call and as a result plunges into a deep depression. Chobi attempts to comfort her in his own way and together the two companions face life and loneliness through winter, day by day, one step at a time.

The events of the short are viewed through Chobi’s POV so the details of his owner’s relationships are very sketchy as the cat doesn’t understand what’s happening between his owner and the person she converses with on the telephone. Viewers fill in the missing details and the result is an absorbing if sometimes puzzling little story that despite its sketchiness can mirror the viewers’ own experiences. Shinkai deliberately leaves the story incomplete and viewers are to assume that together the woman and Chobi will piece together their broken lives and overcome suffering and alienation.

The animation which relies on collages of black-and-white stills with economic movements enhances the haiku-like nature of the narrative and its sketchy, fill-in-the-dots quality. The black-and-white look heightens the short’s emotional aspects and the oppressive air of the impersonal landscapes surrounding the apartment block where Chobi and his owner live. Everything is portrayed as if in close-up: details of the woman’s apartment are shown in close-up from Chobi’s POV and viewers rarely see complete pieces of furniture apart from the telephone and a chair, much less an entire room or much of the woman’s flat. Even the woman herself appears fragmented: we see her from behind or from the side but we never see three-quarters or the whole of her face. The effect is that the short mirrors the woman’s mental state – in many forms of mental illness, we rarely view ourselves as complete beings or in a positive, wholesome way. Background monuments such as power lines and towers, stationary trains, staircases and carparks appear as monstrous behemoths with a forbidding and intimidating appearance.

Curiously Chobi and his friend Mimi are drawn in a crude way, suggestive of Hello Kitty! childish simplicity, compared to inanimate objects and structures which are drawn in great, almost fetishistic detail. This might suggest how small Chobi and Mimi feel in an oversized, perhaps oppressive artificial environment.

The scale and fragmented nature of the narrative do not warrant longer treatment than several minutes but five minutes are all that’s needed to tell a surprisingly involved and quite complex little story.

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