Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, 1920-2012
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Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, 1920-2012

Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf posted the sad news today on the Facebook page for “The Cats of Mirikitani,” the wonderful and powerful documentary she made in 2006:

It is with deep deep sorrow that we must share the sad news that our dear friend Jimmy Mirikitani passed away on Sunday October 21. He was 92 years old. Thank you for all the love you have shown him; his friends and fans meant the world to him.

There will be a public memorial on December 9 at 5 pm in New York at the Japanese American Association, 15 West 44th Street, 11th floor, New York, NY 10036. All are welcome.

Mirikitani turned 92 this past summer, just before he visited Denver for a whirlwind weekend for an opening reception at a gallery exhibit of his artwork, and a screening of Hattendorf’s film. (The video above is from the gallery opening, when he was presented with a birthday cake.)

Mirikitani and the filmmaker, along with the film’s producer Masa Yoshikawa, had been on the road for a week already, and attended a pilgrimage to the Tule Lake internment camp from San Francisco. After Denver, the trio were headed to New Mexico for another screening and art exhibit.

He was adorable, a feisty old man full of good humor and the determined energy that served him through his long journey through the edges of American society.

Mirikitani was an accomplished artist in northern California when war broke out between Japan and the US. Though he was born in America and therefore a US citizen, he was sent to a concentration camp along with over 110,000 other people of Japanese heritage. The experience embittered Mirikitani, who drew and painted scenes of Tule Lake as a desolate prison with a lonely, tiny figure with a red beret — himself — wandering the grounds. He was so angry with the US government he gave up his citizenship.

After the war, he went off the grid and refused government assistance of any kind. He didn’t even know that his citizenship had been restored.

By 2001, he was homeless, and making art on the streets of lower Manhattan. Enter Linda Hattendorf, who lived in SoHo and saw Mirikitani every day, furiously drawing and painting on a street corner. She began filming him, which he allowed on the condition that she buy some of his art.

Then the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, 2001. In the apocalyptic swirling gray dust of the World Trade Center collapse, Hattendorf found Mirikitani and urged him to come home with her. She put him up in her apartment, and the documentary emerged as she found out his amazing biography.

She became part of the story and helped him reclaim his identity and Social Security benefits and then get housing and other assistance. She also helped him reclaim his art career, and through an artist in California, got Mirikitani a solo exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. That’s in the film. She also was able to track down Mirikitani’s sister, whom he hadn’t seen since the two were sent to separate camps during the war. That’s in the film. The DVD extras also includes a trip she arranged for Mirikitani to visit Japan and see his family in Hiroshima.

In Denver, it was clear that Mirikitani tired easily, and though he was warm and inviting with everyone during the reception at his exhibit, the next day he slept through much of the film screening and the Q&A, and let Hattendorf and Yoshikawa handle questions from the audience. But afterwards, he was alert and friendly as he signed prints of his artwork, and movie posters in both English and Japanese — as he tired, he misspelled his name, which made the autographs even more endearing.

I marveled at his stamina, and worried that he was traveling to New Mexico before he’d get back to New York.

The news of his passing comes as a shock, but not a surprise. He lived a full second life in just the span of a decade, thanks to Hattendorf. He received the acclaim he deserved as an artist, and traveled the world with the film about his life.

I’m very glad and honored to have been able to meet the man. And I wish his spirit well in the next part of his journey. I wish I could attend the memorial service in New York. But my thoughts will be there.

Here’s a video of Mirikitani spontaneously and playfully demonstrating martial arts moves from his childhood during the gallery reception in Denver, with Hattendorf holding him up for support.