Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hachiko: A Dog’s Story - A film review

Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, a 2008 film starring Richard Gere directed by Lasse Hallström somehow passed me by until yesterday. Possibly it’s because my love of dogs went into the red zone recently. Like anybody who has lived in Tokyo for even a brief time, I know the name and the story of the original Hachiko well, and I’m certain I would have made a point of tracking down this American spin-off. I’m glad the time finally came.

Hachiko, the original, was an Akita dog taken in by a Tokyo University professor in 1924. Akitas are known for their strong loyalties to a single individual, but Hachiko seems to have been unusual. Every day for a year he followed Professor Ueno to Shibuya Station and came back again to meet him when he came home. In May of 1925, the professor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and didn’t show up at his usual time. Hachiko nonetheless went back every day for nine years at the usual time, almost to the time of his own death in 1935.

Hachiko is a national legend in Japan. The exit at Shibuya Station is even called the “Hachiko Exit” and there is a statue of Hachiko marking the most common meeting spot in the city. If you are tempted to leave because the person you are waiting for is late, you imagine the guilt you would feel over leaving after a short time when the standard set by Hachiko is nine years.

The American film is a remake of a Japanese film, Hachiko Monogatari (The Story of Hachiko), the top grossing Japanese film (¥2 billion) of 1987. It was reset in a small town New England, but the story line was maintained, with the ending tidied up. Hachi returns for ten years until his death.

Since the film has been out for some time, and has over 1700 reviews on Netflix, it is unlikely I can add anything that others have not already said, but there are times when audience reactions are as worthy of analysis as the film they are reacting to. Marx says one’s world view is determined by one’s relationship to wealth. If you can allow me a ridiculous trivialization with this comparison, one’s view of Hachiko will almost surely be determined by one’s relationship to dogs. Real dog lovers are likely to ball their eyes out and give it five stars. It's hard to be objective if you've ever experienced the love of an animal, especially if you've known one that goes crazy at the sight of you. The rest of the world will then face the second great divider, a widely-held conviction that emotional issues are less serious than intellectual ones, and the view that, while one engages the brain better when emotions are excluded, any straight-on engagement with emotions is by its very nature manipulative.

This shows up in the Rotten Tomatoes reviews. The gap between professional movie critics and the audience at large could scarcely be greater. Of the 24 film critics who reviewed it, 14 liked it, 10 didn’t. That’s a pretty low 58% positive rating. Of the over 9000 individuals who reviewed it, however, 85% liked it. Similarly, on Netflix, the average rating of the nearly half a million viewers who rated it was 4.1 out of 5 stars.

Viewer after viewer spoke of a flood of tears. Whether it’s the silent loyalty of a creature who cannot speak, or the fact that there is no buffer between the death of the lead character and the sense of loss you feel by putting yourself in the dog’s position, rarely have I seen a presentation of grief so starkly depicted. Many reviewers resent this, understandably. One complains, how could the genius who made such winners as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog, and Casanova, be reduced to making the film equivalent of Hallmark Cards? And what of the heartthrob of An Officer and a Gentleman playing a grown man with a tennis ball in his mouth trying to teach a dog to fetch?

That depends, I think, on whether you believe Hallström is simply letting the highly sentimental material do the work, or whether it actually took talent to get the viewer to take a dog’s point of view. I see the same warmth of treatment here I saw in Gilbert Grape and My Life as a Dog, and would argue there is much more than mere tear-jerking going on.

There are other criticisms to be made of the work. I found the scenes of the professor in the classroom stilted and unconvincing, and many other family interaction scenes stagey. I am sympathetic to dog lovers who objected that the dog was portrayed too much like a human being – being given the freedom to roam after the loss of his master, for example, rather than being confined so he could be cared for.

At the same time, I would give Hallström some poetic license here, since his goal was to foreground the stirring story of absolute loyalty, and not to provide a tutorial on dog-rearing.

Grief and loss are not well dealt with in our culture. We shun things we fear might make us cry or feel bad. I find that tragic. A way of cutting oneself off from the richness of life.

Don’t rent Hachiko casually. Pick a time when you’re able to give free rein to your emotions. Expect to cry. Many sentimental folk will tear up early on at the cuteness of Hachiko as a pup. Many others will say to themselves, when the professor dies and they are still dry-eyed, that they have met the challenge not to cry and emerged victorious. But just you wait.

Once you go through the experience, you will be in a position to ask yourself whether it is possible to deal with any emotional experience without feeling you’ve been manipulated, and whether there isn’t something quite dishonest about that. You don’t want to believe a movie should be rated highly because it makes you cry. But isn’t it also be true that it shouldn’t be disparaged because it does, either?


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