Friday, October 24, 2008

REVIEW: Hachikō Monogatari - Seijirô Kôyama (1987)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I cringed when I saw the recent trailers for “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and I wondered what the hell Disney was thinking when they released this… thing… in theatres. Well, I guess they were thinking of the $69,282,560 in box office that it’s done so far, which surprises me because I’d thought that the days of big screen dog pictures, live-action or CG, had died with Lassie and Benji. Why am I going on about “ Beverly Hills Chihuahua ”? Because while dogs and cats and hockey playing chimps in North America have for the most part been relegated to the straight to video market, but in Japan they seem to still do a booming business. This year alone we’ve seen the release of "A Pandaful Life" from Shochiku, "Goo Goo the Cat" from Asmik Ace and "Nekonade" from Happinet Pictures. One of the most successful cute animal movies in Japan was the 1987 film “Hachikō Monogatari” based on the true-life story of Hachiko, a pure bred Akita who became famous during the late 1920s in Japan for his astounding loyalty.

If you’ve been through Shibuya Station’s west exit adjacent to the famous Shibuya Crossing then you’ve probably seen the bronze statue of Hachikō. In 1932 the hearts of Tokyo Shimbun readers were captured by the stories of a scruffy Akita who each evening sat just outside the station seemingly waiting for something. It turned out he wasn’t waiting for something, but someone. Hachikō had been raised by Hidesamurō Ueno, a professor of agriculture at Tokyo University and the dog would see him off at the station every morning and wait for him to return from his work on campus each night. This routine was ended in the spring of 1925 when Ueno died of a stroke leaving Hachikō to be bounced back and forth between his surviving relatives and eventually abandoned to life on the streets of Tokyo.

The brass at Shochiku thought, "What better story to turn into a movie?" so they enlisted none other than "Onibaba" director Kaneto Shindo to pen the script (!) and journeyman filmmaker Seijirô Kôyama to direct it. What's a real surprise is the talent they got to star in it, none other than Tetsuya Nakadi takes on the role of Prof. Ueno, but even he can't save “Hachikō Monogatari” from rising above its melodramatic roots.

The film starts in 1924 when a former student sends a young pure bred Akita puppy down to Prof. Ueno who is still grieving the loss of his old dog, but he's got more than enough to deal with down in Tokyo and doesn't relish the idea of a scrappy pup to take care of. Besides his busy schedule at the university he's just discovered that his daughter Chizuko has become pregnant by her boyfriend and he and his wife must now start planning a wedding, and on top of that the family is still smarting from the loss of their last beloved dog. Of course when the oh so cute pup arrives (he really is adorable) everyone's heart melts, but none more than Prof. Ueno who immediately bond with the dog he names Hachikō. Okay, he may bond a bit too much as we're treated to scenes of Nakadi napping with Hachikō, picking fleas from his coat and even bathing with him. Prof. Ueno's wife is right in worrying that she's competing for her husbands love.

There's plenty of scenes of cute little Hachikō escaping from the yard, chewing up his owner's bed of daffodils, of him making friends with the other neighbourhood dogs, etc., but once he's full grown and the tragedy of the death of the Professor hits the Ueno family Shindo and Kôyama pull out all the stops to get us reaching for that box of Kleenex. Frankly it didn't work on me, but I could see it getting a large audience weeping and sniffling, especially the scene where Hachikō chases after the hearse carrying the body of his old master. The only real emotion I felt as we watched Hachikō mourning Prof. Ueno was anger, anger at the woman who finally kicks Hachikō out onto the street to fend for himself. I mean come on!

In the end even the the true-life story tied in with the statue outside Shibuya Station could save “Hachikō Monogatari” for me. I wasn't surprised by the fact that it turned out to feel like some dull TV movie of the week and that Tetsuya Nakadai was totally wasted in it, and I wasn't entertained which for any film, cute animals movie or not, is the biggest sin of all.

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