Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Hachi: A Dog's Tale 
Directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen

So far, I haven't done any movie reviews on this site -- after all, our title is "Books and Beasts" -- but I recently watched a movie that I think is right at home here.  Hachi: A Dog's Tale  came out in 2009 with little fanfare.  I pay a good bit of attention to movie releases, and I don't remember hearing anything about it.  In fact, I only found it by accident on NetFlix and ordered it because -- well, there's an Akita in the film.  What more do you need?

I remember several years ago when I was working as a volunteer in a companion animal shelter, coming in for my shift one afternoon and being told by the kennel attendants that the "big black-and-white dog" on the back run didn't want to leave his pen to go outside.  Apparently they had tried everything, from coaxing him out with treats to just putting a leash on him and insisting that he go.  Nothing worked.  Often, during the hours when the shelter was open the staff were busy dealing with the public and the volunteers were left on their own.  I frequently do well with difficult and stubborn dogs (as long as they aren't my own -- but that's a different story) so I went around to take a look at this problem pooch.  As soon as I stopped in front of his pen, I understood.  The beautiful black and white dog stretched out on the dog bed had the unmistakable "noble" head and upcurled tail of an Akita.  He was young, maybe a year old, and there were some pretty ugly wounds on the top of his head probably the result of a fight.

"Who in the world was dumb enough to tangle with you?" I asked him.

He just watched me.  Not friendly.  Not aggressive.  Just watched.

I understood right away what the problem was.  A lot of dog handlers and trainers claim that the secret to dealing with difficult dogs is to assert your authority, to make it clear that you are the "alpha dominant dog".  I've never been really comfortable with that.  In my experience, dog's are well aware that humans run the world.  Most of them respect that, a few of them rebel against it.  Some, like second class citizens everywhere, are constantly on the lookout for ways to beat the system or slip the leash.  But I suspect that if you could take a survey of dogs everywhere their number one complaint would not be that humans are too strict, or that (according to the Caesar Milan philosophy) humans are poor alpha's and don't provide enough structure -- not even that the food is boring and there aren't enough walks.  I'm pretty sure that the number one complain of dogs everywhere is simply this:  Humans don't listen.  And since dogs spend a great deal of their time observing and "listening" to humans, it must seem more than a little disrespectful.
What's true for most dogs goes double (at least) for Akitas.

The Akita -- Akita-Inu or Great Japanese dog -- is believed by the Japanese to be one of the oldest breeds, a claim that modern DNA studies seem to bear out.  Among those who have only met them casually, Akita's have a reputation for being aloof and disinterested.  But in their homeland, they are a symbol of unswerving loyalty.

Hachi is a remake of a 1987 movie Hachi-kō  by the Japanese director Seijirō Kōyama, and both are based (the American version more loosely) on the real life case of a dog named Hachiko who was adopted by Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of the University of Tokyo in 1924.  Hachiko learned to meet his master's train every day when the Professor came home from work.  In 1925 the Professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage while at work, and never returned home.  Hachiko continued to return to the train station to meet the afternoon train every day for nine years.  His determination attracted national attention.  Articles were published about him.  A bronze statue of him was erected at the train station.  So great was the national admiration for Hachiko that he became an iconic symbol of family loyalty and national determination.  His fame in credited, at least in part, with reawakening interest and pride in the national dog and helping to save the Akita breed from extinction after World War II.

In this version the Professor -- a composer and music teacher -- is played by Richard Gere.  We, as viewers, get to see the young Akita puppy crated up by a monk in Japan and shipped out to a new owner in the United States.  But the crate falls off a baggage cart and the puppy escapes.  By the time the Professor finds him on the train platform he has no identifying information, just a collar which bears the Japanese symbol for the number eight -- Hachi.  The Professor takes him in to save him from the pound, promising his reluctant wife that he will find the dog a home.  There is some low-key conflict between the spouses over adopting the dog, but it is pretty obviously a done deal.  The Professor and the puppy have bonded.  Indeed, what is truly remarkable about this movie is that it is entirely the story of the relationship between one man and one dog.  All of the other human business -- the ups and downs of marriage, the wedding of a daughter and the birth of a grandson, and so on -- are only backdrop, and as the film goes on they drop away.  By the time the Professor dies, the film is entirely Hachi's.  In moments it comes as close as any film I've ever seen to truly presenting us with the dog's point of view.  (A few brief scenes are even shot in black and white to emphasize the dog's perspective).    There are actors who can carry a movie just with the strength of their personality, and as this film goes on it is the surprisingly expressive face of the Akita Hachi that delivers the emotional punch of the film.  (According to the Humane Society reviews Hachi was played as puppy by two Shiba Inus and as an adult by three alternating Akitas.  Good work guys.)

In the shelter that day, I guessed that it would be futile to try more bribes or enticements to draw the Akita out of his kennel.  And I certainly didn't expect him to accept anyone he just met as an alpha.  There was nothing in his body language to suggest that he cared what status we assigned to ourselves.  Hung up on status and primate political projections, humans often overlook how deep the emotion of pride runs in some breeds. 
"I know you call the shots," some dogs silently tell us, "even if I can't quite figure out why.  But Buddy, you're going to treat me with respect.  Or I ain't going nowhere."

I slipped into the kennel and sat down close to, but not right next to, the Akita.  I talked to him quietly and let him get used to me.  After a while I gave him a treat.  After a few treats, I scratched his ear, careful to stay clear of the wounds on his head.  Like most big, heavily coated dogs he had a great need for scratching assistance.  Mostly, I felt, he just wanted to be acknowledge.  Finally, I got up and showed him my leash.  Glancing around to make sure no one could see me, I put my hands together and bowed slightly.

"Akita-san," I said.  A silly American making stereotyped Japanese noises at a dog who had almost certainly been born and raised within a fifty mile radius of Seattle.  But he lifted his head and let me attach the leash, and a second later he slowly stood up, stretched, and followed me out of the kennel.  Just two respectful acquaintances going for a walk.

For those who have any experience with Akitas, Hachi: A Dog's Tale rings especially true.  For any dog lover, it is an unabashed tear jerker.  More so than any other realistic film I've ever seen, this really is the dog's story.  It comes a close to making a real dog the central character as any film I know -- much more so than more well known films like Marley and Me.  It's one of the best animal films I have seen in a long time.


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