Sony // 2009 // 93 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 9th, 2010
A true story of faith, devotion and undying love.
It is difficult to say what unites humans and their loyal canine companions, but it's easy to say that stories of human-dog interactions are pretty much guaranteed to ignite sympathetic feelings and sentimental moments. It seems that most people either have their own sad dog story (like losing a family friend), or can vividly remember the trauma of such beloved classics as Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows. These stories reveal the beating heart behind our relationships with canine companions, and they're all the more effecting when based on true events. Although it has been Americanized, Hachi: A Dog's Tale (Blu-ray) is a Japanese dog tale that combines heart-wrenching narrative elements with a solid cast and an able director. For those who need a reason to reach for the tissues, Hachi is an excellent example of canine cinema.
While coming home one day from his university teaching job, Parker Wilson (Richard Gere, Chicago) encounters a little Akita puppy. Although his wife (Joan Allen, Jumper) is initially resistant to the idea of a dog, an attachment grows between this little stray, dubbed "Hachi" (meaning "8") after the symbol on his collar, and Parker. When something tragic happens, Hachi demonstrates his loyalty to his master and shows the depth that can develop between dogs and their people.
Hachi is based on a true story, and it's the kind of amazing story that just begs for a film. In real life, a Japanese man bought a young Akita puppy in 1923. The puppy bonded with his master and would wait for him outside the train every day. When his master died in 1925, Hachi spent the next ten years waiting at the train station for his owner to return. Hachi's dediction to his master became a Japanese sensation as an example of the loyalty to which all Japanese should strive, and a statue of Hachi stands to this day at the station where he waited.
This is truly a beautiful story, one that shows how profound loss can be for both man and animal as well as just how strongly we can bond with others, be they human or not. The problem, however, is that there isn't really much of a story beyond the fact that Hachi waited for ten years for his master to return. There isn't really any drama. We watch Parker and Hachi bond, we see Parker die, and then we watch Hachi wait at the train station. That's pretty much it. I think there's certainly something to be said for minimalism when telling a story this profound, but Hachi relies too much on the truth of the story elements for my taste. If this hadn't actually happened, then this movie would not have been made because it's really very difficult to dramatize a dog waiting for a decade. Because of this I spent much of the first hour of the film completely bored with Hachi and his master. Sure the puppy was cute and Richard Gere can act, but after an hour it got a little wearing. Then, once Hachi's vigil began, it got a little sad, but the utter lack of drama made it equally difficult to watch.
I'm also somewhat uncomfortable with the translation of this story to American shores. Hachi is a Japanese national treasure (he's even stuffed and mounted in a museum), so to transfer his loyalty to an American seems odd. Sure the tale is supposed to be a timeless portrayal of loyalty, but relegating the Japanese influence to a single token character just doesn't sit right with me.
I, apparently, am a heartless jerk because everybody else I watched it with wept at Hachi: A Dog's Life. I can totally understand this reaction, because Hachi's story is a truly sad one. I just don't think it's presented well enough in this film to warrant any tears.
Despite the fact that I didn't particularly enjoy the film, I can't fault it on any technical level. Lasse Hallström is a very competent director and he imbues Hachi with a fluid, unassuming style that fits the material. He intersperses more traditional shots with doggy cam shots that mimic Hachi's colorblind vision and he tastefully utilizes digital effects to show the passage of time and convincingly portray Hachi's vigil.
The acting, though, is where Hachi really shines. This is the most likeable I can ever remember Richard Gere being. His boundless enthusiasm for Hachi and his obvious love for his family means that ever moment he's on the screen shines. Joan Allen gets the thankless job of being initially against Hachi, and seeing her transform from skeptic to believer is one of the film's treats. The supporting cast really shine, and give Hachi and his vigil the emotional impact they have. Jason Alexander plays the station master where Hachi waits and I didn't think he had this kind of gravitas in him, while Erick Avari plays a hot dog vendor who befriends both Parker and Hachi with humor and caring. I was especially impressed with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Parker's friend Ken. He has to play the token Japanese character and he does so with warmth and good humor.
It's also hard to fault the technical presentation of this Blu-ray disc. The transfer is clean, and while much of the film has a toned-down feel due to the wintry time frames, colors are strong and detail is pretty high throughout the presentation. The audio is generally constrained to dialogue and score, but they are balanced wonderfully with every word ringing clear.
The lone real extra is an 18-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that allows plenty of time for the cast to discuss the dogs they got to work with throughout the production. There is also a MovieIQ option that presents film trivia over the film.
Hachi: A Dog's Life is entirely intended as a hanky picture. If you're in the mood for a good cry, then chances are Hachi is the picture for you. Those who are unable to look past the rather thin plot and the sometimes manipulative cinematic mechanics would do best to leave the film alone.
Although it didn't warm my heart completely, Hachi's loyalty means an acquittal.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated G