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Film: A Tale of Ururu’s Forest, a.k.a. A Tale of Ululu’s Wonderful Forest [Ururu no mori no monogatari ウルルの森の物語]
Director: NAGANUMA Makoto 長沼誠
Performers: FUNAKOSHI Eiichiro 船越英一郎, FUKADA Kyoko 深田恭子, KITAMURA Sara 北村沙羅, KUWASHIRO Takaaki 桑代貴明, Ururu ウルル
Breeds featured: Wolf dog, Border Collie (very briefly)
Production information: Toho, 2009 (Japan)

When their mother is hospitalized, young Shizuku and her older brother Subaru are sent to live with their father, a wildlife preservationist in rural Hokkaido. Initially, it’s a bit of a culture shock adjusting to the new environment and their estranged father. But they are soon taken in by the wonders of nature when they discover a stray, wolf-like puppy in the woods. Shizuku decides to name him Ururu, based on her mispronunciation of the English loan word urufu for wolf. This mistranslation is rather fitting, as nobody is quite sure what he is. After some poking and prodding, DNA tests come back to suggest that Ururu might be a live specimen of an Ezo okami or Hokkaido wolf, an indigenous Japanese wolf thought to have been extinct for over a hundred years.

Never mind that the pup does not look anything like a Japanese wolf — but I think the film banks on the fact that the audience has little exposure to wolves, nor much of anything truly wild. This point is hammered home pretty forcefully, as it underpins the ethical message of the whole story. As the father says, “We have to avoid each other. Then humans and wildlife can both live. […] ‘Born wild, remain wild.’ That is the rule of nature.”

But scientists apparently get to bypass that dictum in the name of advancing knowledge. A molecular biologist friend intervenes to remove “Specimen 01,” as renamed, for further study. The idea horrifies the children, who want to see the pup reunited with his mother. So they decide to sneak Ururu out of the preservation center and embark on a journey to find the mythical Kingdom of Wolves, led by little but a hand-drawn map pulled from a storybook, and their faith that this is the right thing to do.

Basically, it’s E.T. with a fluffy little wolf dog instead of a wrinkly rubber alien, and the extraterrestrial has been internalized and domesticated — then released to repopulate this world with magic.

Given the contentious nature of wolf reintroduction programs in Japan, I was very curious about the dog star and the film’s reception. Unfortunately, I’ve been able to uncover very little information about Ururu’s background. The film’s official website is rather barren. Information drawn from Toho Films and various press releases say he was a 40-day-old hybrid pup recruited for the part. Given his age, I wonder if he was imported or born in Japan, possibly extracted from some wolf breeding and management program in Hokkaido.

I was able to find information about a dog trainer, MIYA Tadaomi 宮忠臣, who has served as the primary animal handler for numerous Japanese films. This link suggests that the full-grown Ururu now lives in a petting zoo located in Wakkanai, Hokkaido. Other residents of this place include the Akita from Stargazing Dog and the Shiba from The Tale of Mari and Her Three Puppies [two films queued for review on my never-ending list]. Kind of depressing that these dog stars don’t get to retire to pet homes after their one hit, but instead are put behind bars and displayed… that is, for anyone who cares to venture waaay out to the northernmost city in Japan.

Grown-up Ururu with dog trainer (Source: unknown photographer, http://www.wappy761.com/furusato/2011/08/)

In summary, it’s a mediocre film that gives too much screentime to the child actors and not enough effort in unpacking its own romanticized eco-agenda (as well-intentioned as it seems) or providing meaningful follow-up. Nevertheless, I thought it worth considering how the figure of the wolf is localized and packaged for mass consumption, given that their extinction has been the historical burden for longer than films have documented and mythologized their absence.

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