Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Wag of a Dog’s Tail: Director Lasse Hallström Takes On the True Story of Man’s Best Friend in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

Good call by Sony Pictures Entertainment. If Hachi: A Dog's Story had been a theatrical instead of a direct-to-video release in the U.S., chances are there would have been a number of angry viewers feeling cheating out of a hard-earned ten bucks. That's to be expected, however, when one is forced to pay to see a film as priceless as this heart-warming family drama by Dear John director Lasse Hallström.

Based on a true story, Hachi is the whimsical tale of a chance encounter between man and man's best friend that transcends into a companionship of profound affection and unflagging loyalty. Richard Gere (who seems to hail from that race of actors who haven't aged for the past twenty years) is Professor Parker Willis who arrives at the train station on a return trip home to find a busted crate and a stray Akita pup wandering the platform. Parker endears himself to the lovable little creature by giving him shelter "just for the night," under the watchful eye of his wary, but sentimental wife Cate, played by Joan Allen. Keeping with the traditional plot of teary-eyed animal dramas, one night turns into week and one week into many as the orphaned canine with the big brown eyes (reminiscent of Puss-in-the-Boots persuasion) is elevated from the ranks of "temporary guest" to "Hachi," Parker's steadfast and faithful companion.

With a plot that's about as complicated as PB sans J, Hachi manages the extraordinary feat of keeping it simple without being stupid or contemptibly sappy. The headline "Dog Loves Man. The Feeling is Mutual" pretty much summarizes the first half of the film, but the second half, "Dog Waits Nine Years for Dead Owner's Return," is the must-see magnet for drama devotees. Hachi and Parker's relationship deepens when Hachi develops a daily ritual of accompanying Parker to the train station in the morning and returning every afternoon to receive his master the moment the train pulls in. Hachi's fidelity makes him a local celebrity and ward of Parker's acquaintances, Jas (Eric Avari), the hot dog vendor, and Carl (Jason Alexander), the cynical station master whose wise-cracks melt like snow in the glance of Hachi's comically indifferent stare.

Out with the tissues, however, when Parker bids Hachi farewell during his morning commute -- and never returns, having passed away during a lecture from cardiac arrest. When a heartbroken Cate (in a subtle, but gravely emotional performance by Allen) moves away and leaves Hachi in the care of her daughter, Andy (Sarah Roemer), Hachi is consumed by depression and a painful longing that leads to a display of unsurpassing loyalty. Every day, for the next nine years, Hachi plants himself in front of the station and waits for the afternoon train to bring his master home.

A standing ovation for the film's best actors (so sorry Richard Gere and Joan Allen), Chico, Layla, and Forrest, who portray Hachi as a pup, a middle-aged tail-wagger, and a grizzled old hound. There's no denying that there's something about animal expression that makes Old Yeller, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Black Beauty, and Babe household names. Beastly intuition is, after all, what made "The Tortoise and the Hare" a more recognized tale to some readers than "Susannah and the Elders."

Hachi is the anchor. The rest of the cast are links that ascend and drift about until they are out of sight, lost in a cloudy surface, but not necessarily burdensome. Sarah Roemer stars as Andy Willis in this, the second direct-to-dvd release in her career (the first was Asylum, a horror film directed by Final Destination 2 director, David R. Ellis). In 2007, she gained international recognition as the love interest to Shia LaBeouf in the suspense thriller, Disturbia. In Hachi, Willis takes after the scene from the Book of Exodus which is less familiar to some than the "The Dog and the Bone." She is what she is, a supporting actress in a supporting role with no ambition to mount otherwise. As "the new face of Jenny Craig," Jason Alexander's talent as an eclectic actor in film, television, and theatre is put to far better use sparring with Richard Gere (with whom he co-starred in the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman). (Oh, wait, he's not supposed to be acting in Jenny Craig, right?) Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, Memoirs of a Geisha) stars as Professor Ken Fujiyoshi, Parker's friend and colleague who educates him in the ways of the Akita

Hachi is based on the dynamic true story of Hachiko, an Akita belonging to Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of the agricultural department at the University of Tokyo. In May 1925, Ueno died of a cerebral hemorrhage while conducting a lecture. His dog, Hachiko, who had arrived at the Shibuya train station to receive Professor Ueno each day, continued to do so after his death for the next nine years. Today, a bronze statue of Hachiko stands at Shibuya Station in front of the "Hachiko-guci" or "Hachiko Exit," where the dog was known to wait for his master's return. Ultimately, Hachi is a deeply moving portrayal of the universal nature of love and the will of all creatures -- be they man or beast -- to defy all obstacles in the name of friendship, even in the face of death.

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

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