Born in Sacramento, Calif., but raised in Hiroshima, Japan, Jimmy Mirikitani and his family spent World War II consigned to an internment camp.
His compelling story is the basis for the documentary "The Cats of Mirikitani," which opens today in Lawrence at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.
Retired Kansas University art professor Roger Shimomura figures prominently in the documentary.
"In 1998, I was on eBay looking for collectibles on the internment camps when one of Jimmy's drawings came up," Shimomura recalls.
"It said that Jimmy was a homeless Japanese-American artist that sold his drawings of cats and internment camps on Washington Square in New York City. The next time I was in New York, I went to Washington Square and found him sitting with three overcoats on, with two shopping carts, one filled with art supplies and drawings and the other with personal effects. All over the ground were drawings and collages of Camp Tule Lake (Calif.) - still lifes, cats and drawings of Hiroshima A-bomb disasters."
Shimomura, also a Japanese-American artist who spent time in an internment camp as a child, befriended the artist and would customarily bring him food, money and art supplies during his frequent trips to New York. But during one such visit, the homeless man apparently had disappeared.
Fortunately, several months later Shimomura received an e-mail from Linda Hattendorf, a "neighbor" of Mirikitani and aspiring filmmaker. She had decided to make a documentary about Mirikitani (now age 86), who told her he wanted to send Shimomura all of his drawings for safekeeping.
"At the beginning of the movie, where I first appear, you see me waving, and that is the exact moment when I noticed Linda for the first time, videotaping my meeting with Jimmy. From that point on, every time I went to New York, the three of us would meet and I would interview Jimmy," says Shimomura, who served as an adviser on the film.
"The Cats of Mirikitani" debuted at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the audience award.
"The Jimmy story has so many twists and turns that it has been an amazing journey," Shimomura says. "Today he lives in a retirement home in NYC and paints every day."