As a cat lover, I’ve never seen a more frightening movie title than If Cats Disappeared from the World. Despite the disastrous implications of its name, this 2016 Japanese drama does not depict some dystopia void of feline companionship; the prospect of kitties disappearing only forms a small part of its story. Rather the movie, and the novel of the same name it was adapted from, more likely wanted to catch the attention (and money) of feline fanciers like me through a cat-baity title.
What If Cats Disappeared from the World does focus on is a young unnamed postman who comes home (where he lives alone with his cat) one day to discover his doppelgänger… who turns out to be the devil. The devil informs the postman that he’s expected to die the next day from a brain tumor. However, the postman also learns that he can make a faustian bargain to extend his life by removing one meaningful thing (and all trace of its prior existence) from the world for each additional day he wants to live.
If the movie’s title was accurate, you might expect cats to be the first thing to disappear. But alas, no — phones are. The story progresses through successive days and more removed items, illustrating through both flashbacks and present-day scenes why each item brought meaning to the postman’s life. We start learning more about this postman’s backstory — family, friendships, past loves, travels — and empathizing with him.
I’d wager that If Cats Disappeared from the World isn’t the first movie to utilize this sort of faustian bargain as a plot device. However, it deploys the technique in a rather personalized way and thus achieves creativity instead of cliche. Each item taken away brings us deeper into the protagonists’ mind; this is a film that makes you really empathize with the main character and follow his journey with curiosity and anticipation.
To me, this embodies what I personally envision (perhaps biased by reading too much Haruki Murakami) as a “quintessentially Japanese” narrative — something that centers around an unremarkable individual but, through refined storytelling technique, brings beauty out of simplicity. If Cats Disappeared from the World is therefore, as you might expect, a measured film. Our protagonist may be dying and items important to his life may have disappeared, a contemplative gravitas remains. The apocalypse is nowhere in sight.
Of course this also means the film contains some of the more tired tropes of Japanese dramas like a mother dying of cancer. But while it draws from a well-established narrative tradition, If Cats Disappeared from the World still manages to provide a heartfelt story. The film isn’t the most artistic or innovative piece out there, but watching it is like drinking a cup of afternoon tea on a bright winter day whilst your cat naps several paces away. It’s a familiar, comfortable, and ephemeral respite.
If Cats Disappeared from the World (Japanese: 世界から猫が消えたなら)–Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Akira Nagai. First released May 2016. Running time 1hr 43min. Starring Takeru Satoh, Aoi Miyazaki, and Gaku Hamada.