EAFFI 2024 | The Cats of Gokogu Shrine Offers A Sweet and compassionate Study of Community

A woman ritually comes to the small coastal town of Honmachi every couple of weeks. Stressed out from work, she seeks comfort and reassurance not from praying at the town’s Gokogu Shrine but from one of its residents. He’s a cow-coloured cat called Ushi-kun. But she’s devastated to find that he’s not at his usual spot. This is clearly an important ritual to her. In a town full of cats, no-one but Ushi-kun would do. He’s her “idol cat”.

Cats are to Honmachi what pigeons are to most cities. Every shot of the temple or quiet city streets is littered with cats sleeping, playing, begging for food (cat owners will know that these are the only three things that cats do). The whole film you’re playing spot the cat, looking for them under cars, behind steps, hidden in the corner of the frame. Affection for these cats is everywhere too, from the schoolchildren who play and tease them to the volunteers who feed and care for them.

At first glance, it seems that the cat population is the only notable thing about an otherwise sleepy little town. But through watching and chatting to the residents, we realise that Honmachi is a rapidly aging community.

An air of nostalgia hangs over the town like a thick fog. Many residents have lived in the town their whole lives and reminisce about playing on the temple’s stone steps that they now hobble up. An 88-year-old man tends to the plants around the temple. He remembers being in middle school during World War 2 when children were forced into manual labour. He is passionate about caring for the local plants but he’s less keen on the cats. And he’s not the only one.


The cats are a divisive topic in the town, there being those who adore them and those who choose their words carefully. It speaks to the low stakes of the film that the most dramatic point of contention revolves around cat poop. To be fair, the stuff is everywhere and some residents bemoan how eager people are to fawn over cats but shirk the responsibility of cleaning up after them.

It’s hard not to see parallels between the cats and the growing elderly population of Honmachi. There’s a common fear among older people in Japan about becoming a burden and a nuisance on the younger generations. That may be one reason why so many interviewed are still working well past 70, still contributing. At a town hall meeting, efforts to shrink the cat population through neutering and spaying are met positively, with an encouraging remark that they’re getting closer to “exterminating” the problem. But what of the greying people of Honmachi, of the care and attention they provide to the temple? Will that be exterminated someday too, along with the ancient rituals and practices that have endured in both the town and Japan for millennia?

The Cats of Gokogu Shrine calls itself an observational film, though that implies a level of objectivity that is just not possible in film. Documentary or not, subjectivity seeps through every aspect of the filmmaking process, from picking the right lens to nailing down the final cut.

Probably a better way to interpret its definition of “observational” is through its treatment of its subjects. There are no sit-down interviews, no leading questions, no digging around for dirt or past scandals. We take a quiet step back, letting people do their work. And in doing so, the small tasks carried out by passionate volunteers become magnified. This is the silent, often thankless, work that keeps alive the community, its temple and its cats. Before The Cats of Gokogu Shrine‘s end credits, an in-memoriam section shows not just the people but also the cats who have passed away since filming. All are treated with the same level of dignity and respect, as all make Honmachi what it is.

The Cats of Gokogu Shrine screens at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) Thursday, March 7th, as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (www.eaffi.ie) followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda

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