If you've ever been on the Internet, which I suspect you have, it may seem like every single day cats, who never cease to make us all weak in the knees, are inching closer and closer toward world domination. However, in some parts of the globe, this is already a reality.
There are several islands in Japan where feral cats roam free, outnumbering the human population. These small, rural islands have captured the attention of tourists and the media over the years. Aoshima Island, located in southwest Japan, was the most recent one to go viral back in March.
However, these so-called cat islands still remain mostly shrouded in mystery to those of us who have never stepped foot on one. Outside of reading some articles, seeing some photos or checking out some social media posts on the topic, it's hard to get a good grasp on what living in one of these places is really like. Until now.
Cat Heaven Island is a new documentary that gives an in-depth look at the felines and people that inhabit the rural cat island of Tashirojima in northeast Japan. Though you might think that you'll just see a bunch of cats running around in this documentary, Cat Heaven Island is about so much more than that.
“When we first got there, we thought it was going to be very much about the cats, but after being there for a little while and hearing about the story of the island and its people and looking at this really awesome, old Japanese culture you don’t really see anymore, it started to become more about the people," said Landon Donoho, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker behind Cat Heaven Island, during a phone interview with T-Lounge. "Then when we learned about the kind of dwindling population and how they didn’t know if the island was even going to exist in 10 years, then it got really interesting to us. And we were like, OK, the cats are kind of the interesting pull of the documentary. They’re the thing that gives it kind of a spark and some really, really cool interest. But it’s this story of this old world, beautiful place that’s fading away that gives the documentary a heart.”
Donoho, who has shot documentary shorts as well as music videos and commercials in the past, and his crew spent a total of four weeks shooting in Tashirojima, which was initially funded by creative crowdsource platform Tongal that also helped get a Kickstarter campaign to fund post-production off the ground. While there, they captured poignant moments with the people of the island, including residents reminiscing about their school days, a fisherman's glee over catching an extremely rare white sea cucumber and a community still coping with the damage caused by the tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in 2011, all with the island's many feral cats in the backdrop.
But it wasn't always easy for Donoho and his crew to get all of that footage. The first day of filming was met with an unusual snowstorm on the island, and the language barrier was a constant obstacle to overcome, even with a translator in tow. Still, Donoho said it was mostly easy to get residents to open up.
“The people there were great. A lot of them were really happy to share their stories," Donoho said. "It felt a lot like when you visit your grandparents and they just want to tell you everything, except for a faraway, rural island on the other side of the country in this really, really strange place. So that was really nice.”
Even though Cat Heaven Island may actually be more about the people of Tashirojima than the cats, your kitty-loving heart shouldn't worry. These felines are still an essential part of the documentary, mirroring the communal culture of Tashirojima at large.
“One big thing is that the cats all absolutely rely on each other to survive, and they are very integrated in this culture, and I think they work sort of as a metaphor for the island and the people there throughout the whole thing," Donoho said. "That’s possibly my favorite part of this, is that when you watch this you see cats forming communities in a way that very much reflects what the people are doing.”
Now that sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? But would Donoho ever live on Tashirojima or one of Japan's other cat islands?
“I would not live on that cat island," Donoho said. "If there were a cat island closer to the city, or like a cat city, I would live in cat city."
After Cat Heaven Island's Kickstarter campaign wraps May 10, Donoho hopes that the film will be complete by November and distributed some time thereafter. Until then, you can check out Cat Heaven Island's 10-minute featurette over on Tongal. It's like catnip before the main course.