The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

June 25, 2010

Lisa Brown: Have tissues ready for Hachi’s story

‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’

(DVD)

When you think of loyalty, what comes to mind? A spouse, a friend, a pet? For me, it’s a dog — one dog, in particular: Hachiko.

This handsome dog was an Akita — a Japanese breed prized for its loyalty, intelligence and protective instincts — that belonged to a university professor in 1920s Japan.

Every day Hachiko would see his master off to work and greet him at the train station when he returned. One evening, the professor failed to return, for he had unexpectedly died while at the university.

Hachiko, however, continued to meet the train every day for the next nine years, looking for his master among the passengers. Today, a statue of Hachiko sits at the Shibuya Station in Tokyo, eternally waiting for his master’s train. He has become a symbol of fidelity for the people of Japan, and, indeed, around the world.

This true story has been Americanized in L’s “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” starring Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and Jason Alexander. It can be found in the children’s DVD collection at the Joplin Public Library.

Gere plays Parker Wilson, a music professor who finds a lost puppy at the train station one night. He takes him home, concerned that he’ll end up at the animal shelter. Although he makes half-hearted attempts to find the owner, Parker instantly feels a connection with the puppy, which convinces his doubtful wife (Allen) to let him stay.

The dog’s origins — even its breed — are a mystery. Only when Parker shows the puppy to a Japanese colleague is some light shed on his new friend. The dog is an Akita, and the Japanese character on his collar tag means “hachi,” or “8,” a lucky number signifying perhaps that the dog was the eighth born in his litter.

Parker develops a strong bond with Hachi, who accompanies him to the train station every morning and meets him there every night, until the inevitable — to anyone familiar with the true story of Hachiko — happens.

Once Gere’s character exits the picture, the film becomes all about Hachi and his loyal, lonely vigil. By night, he sleeps under a train. By day, he sits at the station, existing on the food and water given to him by a friendly street vendor. Years pass, and Hachi ages; his ears and tail droop, his gait slows, his coat grows dull.

A decade later, Parker’s widow, who had re-homed the dog after her husband’s death and then moved away, returns to the town. When she sees Hachi waiting at the train station, she’s incredulous. She approaches, offers him her hand to sniff, and asks if she can wait with him. She hugs him and says almost sadly, “You old thing, you’re still waiting …”

 Although at times I felt like I was watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” was a welcome change of pace from the summer blockbusters currently monopolizing movie theaters.

The performances are low-key. The movie itself is poignant, quiet, and grown-up. Rated G, it’s family friendly in that it has no violence or swearing, but I do question its appropriateness for all children. The themes of death and loss might be too intense for some. I, for one, had a pile of wadded up Kleenex next to me by the time the closing credits rolled.

The DVD extras are sparse, with just a short “making of” featurette that touches on why such well-known actors attached themselves to a small movie. It also addresses the challenges of training for film a breed of dogs that, while renowned for their intelligence, are also known for being stubborn and unwilling to please just anybody. Of the multiple dogs used for filming, one is humorously described as the “Meryl Streep of Akitas” for her expressive eyes and ability to engage with the actors.

And the dogs really are the stars of the film, despite the big names surrounding them. They’re beautiful, noble creatures, with strong bodies, thick fur, and ancient eyes. The film’s perspective is often that of Hachi, shot in black and white, from the ground, seeing but not entirely understanding what’s happening around him.

So if you want a break from noisy special effects this summer, check out “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” at the library. But make sure you have some tissues handy.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.

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