Film: Walking with the Dog [Inu to arukeba 犬とあるけば]
Director: SHINOZAKI Makoto 篠崎誠
Performers: TANAKA Naoki 田中直樹, RYO りょう, FUJITA Yoko 藤田よこ, AOKI Tomio 青木富夫, Peace (shiba mix), Chirori (therapy mutt)
Production Information: 2004 (Japan)
Breeds featured: Shiba mix, Siberian Husky, mutts
Yasuyuki is an earnest but naive young man who gets dumped by his girlfriend the same day he picks up an abandoned Shiba mix, whom he names Tamura. He is immediately drawn to the smart little mutt, perhaps because they share a similar plight of being left behind by someone they loved. Though Yasuyuki is unemployed and barely able to fend for himself, he is inspired to help the dog. He jumps on an opportunity to enroll Tamura as a therapy dog with an organization that he heard about on the news. The training director is touched by Yasuyuki’s selflessness and gives them a place to stay and work, allowing both human and dog (and audience) the opportunity to learn about animal therapy work.
Meanwhile, Yasuyuki’s ex-girlfriend, Miwa, has returned home to take care of her granny and depressed younger sister while her mother is in hospice care. She has enough stress in her life without Yasuyuki’s attempts to get back together with her, so when he offers her Tamura’s assistance, she is skeptical at first. However, the good-natured little dog shows that he knows how to work the miracles she once expected of her boyfriend. Miwa and her family eventually come to understand the value of canine companionship, particularly the way that dogs can help enrich human relationships.
Hot on the heels of the Japanese blockbuster Quill, the story of a seeing eye Labrador (yes, it’s on my to-do list, when I finally feel emotionally steeled for it), this quiet little film barely raised any notice. While Walking with the Dog does unfortunately suffer from some problems with pacing and poor character development, I think it’s deserving of a closer look. If nothing else, it’s a tantalizing and honest contribution from Japanese animal advocates who are attempting to manifest a vision of humanitarian care akin to what they imagine is available in developed countries like the United States.
Indeed, one of the sharpest angles about this film is the way that the American animal welfare system is unabashedly praised as a model for emulation. One scene where Yasuyuki’s friends are debating what to do about Tamura unfolds as follows:
Woman: I heard that when America had this problem of abandoned dogs… they set up a system specially for training these kinds of dogs.
Yasuyuki: Japan doesn’t have this kind of system?
Woman: Well, I don’t really know anything about that.
Yasuyuki: Where have I heard about this before…?
And that’s when he looks up at the television to see a news story on therapy dog star Chirori, wearing an American flag bandanna, and her trainer.
This actually parallels the musical career of “Mr. Yellow Blues” man Toru OKI 大木トオル, who not only acts the role of the training director, but who is also a real-life spokesperson for the International Therapy Dog Association in Japan. Reflecting his performance practices (he was known for making a convincing show of Chicago blues sung entirely in English), Oki-sensei tells his therapy dog assistants to give commands in English, as the consonants of the Japanese language are too soft and muddled for proper instruction.
The welcome mat at Oki’s training center is similarly bedecked in stars and stripes, and later in the film, when therapy dog work appears to be gaining popularity, new trainees are initiated under a banner that reads “Proud to Be An American.” So these overt gestures of American favoritism are hard to miss, but the appeals have less to do with toadying to the West than embracing an ideal of universal humanitarianism.
Ultimately, what is most touching and most captivating about this film are the unrehearsed encounters, the moments when these real life therapy dogs are working their magic at nursing homes and elementary schools. I admit that my eyes were more often on the dogs than the humans in such scenes, and there were times when I cringed when witnessing the mobs that these poor dogs must suffer in the name of teaching about empathy and compassion. But it’s all the more to their credit and their training that they never act out even in times of visible confusion and stress. The stub-legged mutt in particular, Chirori, is placid through it all, a true exemplar of what the calming presence of a dog can do.
The nursing home scenes are also notable for featuring veteran actor AOKI Tomio (below), whose film career spanned 1929 (!) to 2004, this being his final film.
For fans of Japanese pop culture, two other prominent names make cameo appearances. KATAGARI Jin 片桐仁 of the comedy duo Rahmens ラーメンズ and YOSHIMURA Yumi of JPop duo Puffy Amiyumi appear as Yasuyuki’s quirky husband-in-law and pregnant sister.
Finally, Ryo, the actress who plays Yasuyuki’s girlfriend, is supposedly a pretty big deal from J-drama. However, I found her appearances to be tedious and unevocative, as befits her character, the emotionally frigid “strong woman” who is far too stoic for her own good. I have to admit that I sped through most of her scenes at double pace (thanks to the wonders of home DVD technology), including her climatic meltdown about three-quarters through the film which otherwise would have taken 8 whole minutes. That’s like a decade in filmic time. But apparently even that wasn’t compelling enough for me to get any screenshots of her, so you’ll just have to do without.
Indeed, the stars of the show, as acknowledged in the film’s full title (Inu to arukeba: Chirori & Tamura) are the dogs, or more specifically, the mutts. And this is why it’s such a huge pity that Walking with the Dog was not a bigger hit in the same Asian regions that embraced Quill (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and of course Japan). Perhaps the abandonment scene that opens the film hit too close to home. I can’t speak of other countries, but I know that releasing unwanted dogs in open areas, instead of trying to properly rehome them, was and still remains common practice in Taiwan [cf. Hsu, et. al, “Dog Keeping in Taiwan: Its Contribution to the Problem of Free-Roaming Dogs,” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare 6.1 (2003): 1-23]. Perhaps audiences were revolted by the scene inside a Japanese animal shelter, which seemed relatively brief and sanitized to me, but may have presented too intrusive a dose of “reality” for audiences expecting more escapist fare.
Or perhaps the idea of a rescue mutt stripped of breed history or any back story with accompanying footage of puppy cuteness is just that radical, and has yet to catch on with mainstream audiences. To be fair, there are several moments that stretch the limits of credibility — for example, Yasuyuki’s complete willingness to claim responsibility for Tamura, even in the face of legal repercussions, and Oki-sensei’s quick decision to take them under his wing despite knowing so little about either of them. So it’s not like the audiences that “rejected” this film are discounting the gravity of the situation, since the story only has a tenuous basis in reality. But the most real characters here are the registered therapy dogs, all of them rescued. For me, the second chance given to every single one of those dogs on screen overshadows the general faults of this film, allowing me to be gentle on its shortcomings, and appraise it instead for its potential to inspire something greater.
Whatever the reasons for the commercial failure of this title, I am grateful to the filmmakers for bringing this story to screen, and would hate to see it fade into obscurity. At the time of this writing, maybe only the expensive Japanese version has English subtitles (it’s not clear to me according to the listing on Yesasia.com, but older titles on that site often suddenly go AWOL once you try to buy them). I watched a Taiwanese edition entitled 男人與流浪狗 (literally A Man and a Stray Dog) with original Japanese dialogue and Chinese subtitles.
If you have any interest in Japanese society, therapy animals, or the way that dogs’ lives are narrated alongside everyday human drama, I’d say this is worth keeping an eye out for.