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Film: The Tale of Mari and Her Three Puppies [Mari to sanbiki koinu no monogatari マリと三匹子犬の物語]
Director: INOMATA Ryuichi 猪股隆一
Performers: FUNAKOSHI Eichiro 船越英一郎, HIROTA Ryouhei 広田亮平, SASAKI Mao 佐々木麻緒
Breed featured: Shiba Inu
Production information: NTV/Toho, 2007 (Japan)

A friend was poking fun at my dog-crazedness when he asked me to name a dog movie that I actually disliked. While I can babble about flawed films, I hope it’s apparent that I don’t give a free pass to anything I watch just because it has a dog! Or a Shiba, for that matter… I’ve long refrained from reviewing The Tale of Mari and the Three Puppies, for instance, because everyone expects me to just adore it. My high hopes, however, led me elsewhere by the end credits.

The title character Mari is based on a real-life Shiba bitch who survived the 2004 Niigata Earthquake, led rescuers to her family of human survivors trapped beneath the collapsed house, and then was abandoned to fend for herself and her three newborn puppies. Despite her heroism, she is repaid with betrayal, simply because she is a non-priority being — a mere dog. The sanctity of family unity becomes sanctimony when deliberately rent asunder by this act of moral injustice. This is not the type of raw deal that a Shiba can sink her teeth into…

So Mari has to learn how to survive aftershocks, hunger, crows, and the elements until rescue teams are finally able to safely escort civilians back to the wreckage.

real life Mari and her puppies, from the film's closing credits

real life Mari and her puppies, from the film’s closing credits

For the Japanese, constantly beset by earthquakes, tsunamis, and the threat of nuclear catastrophe, this leap from disaster to drama is never so distant. Portrayals of crisis are part of an ongoing process of psychological mobilization, serving as important mental drills supplementing physical survival kits. Shifting the stakes onto the bodies of animals abstracts the threat just one level further, even as the drama assumes anthropocentric turns.

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The Tale of Mari and Her Three Puppies works through the theme of disaster in two classic modes, as a maternal melodrama and a modernization narrative about country vs. city. Unfortunately, the movie does neither particularly well, and fails even to live up to its premise as a dog-centric story.

SPOILERS below

The movie begins with an aerial entrance into Yamakoshi village, which at the time was facing incorporation into the nearby city of Nagaoka, despite some resistance from more conservative old-timers. Daily rituals in the village included such quaint spectacles as bull-battling competitions. The Ishikawa family has long taken residence in a traditional structure that houses the father, grandfather, and two young children. Their mother has passed away, and the children struggle quietly with the psychological trauma of being orphaned. Father works hard to maintain the home (which, in his long term vision, will be an apartment in Nagaoka) but he is unable to provide proper emotional nourishment for his children. Grandfather tries to make up for his inadequacies, but his own failing body restricts his activities with the two vivacious youngsters, Ryota and Aya.

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So the purebred Shiba Inu puppy that follows the kids home fulfills numerous domestic deficiencies. As the pup was also abandoned, bringing Mari home helps assuage young Aya that not all daughters in the world are destined to suffer her anguish as a motherless child. Instead, together they can inhabit a world of innocence and puppyfuzz and playful romps through pristine, pastoral landscapes.

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And eventually, when Mari herself becomes a mother, Aya witnesses the re-enactment of motherhood as trial — that is, as a test of character. A good mother, she learns, must be willing to risk danger, put herself directly in harm’s path, and sacrifice her own self for her children. And of course, the reason that Aya must learn this lesson both from her aunt, who interprets the confusion in her surrogate role, as well as her dog, is because her own biological mother had previously been so “successful” in achieving this self-negation in service to her screaming hellspawn darling angels.

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It’s a really paradoxical message: “Mothers are strong,” surviving through genetic legacy precisely because they sacrifice their own identity. This assurance of endurance beyond death is one we’ve also seen enfolded into the figure of the “loyal dog” as well, so no surprise that this ideology maps so easily onto Mari. In this case, her effectiveness as a canine trope is determined almost entirely by the trio of bobble-headed puppies bouncing in her footsteps.

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It’s hard to resist focusing all attention on the DAWWWpuppies because they’re basically allowed to move and behave naturally, whereas Mari’s all too obvious training makes her movements rather robotic. The most egregious scene was the reunion, probably the most ineffective climax I’ve ever witnessed in this type of lost animal story, because Mari is just sitting there — expressionless, unmoving, and entirely too disciplined for a moment that should be a power surge of emotion and action.

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The little girl has to compensate for the emotions that are completely lacking on the Shiba’s face or body. However, by this point she has already worn my patience thin having erupted into one too many shots with her scrunchy, screechy, tear-stained face. These performances are tiresome, and become downright depressing when we find at the end of the movie that Mari is left tied to her doghouse while the puppies get to enjoy a walk around the refugee camp. We last see Mari standing stiffly, staring vacantly off scene, remaining outdoors while the children cheerfully drag the puppies inside their trailer… indoors into a space that Mari was never permitted to enjoy freely.

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That ending soured the entire film for me, and I’ve not been able to neutralize my distaste despite repeated viewings. A previous version of this review was never published, as it was ill-timed in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Since then, I’ve tried to reconsider my irritation with this film. I admit that it’s fairly effective at turning on the waterworks when necessary — and I actually don’t resent the filmmakers for milking audience sentiment. Emotional “manipulation,” if you want to call it that, is one of the features that makes melodrama and animal tales effective.

My issue, instead, is where our sympathies eventually lead us, as flagged by Mari’s final abandonment, visually absorbed into a grid of urban development in the final aerial shot arching up and over the refugee camp. Mothers must inevitably give way to their children, just as the country must give in to the city, all in the name of progress and change. The promise of an enlightened, more efficient, and more advanced future rests on the beautiful sacrifices of yesterday, towards which we cast a wistful, nostalgic glance as we whisk away a few fat, staged tears.

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