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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Movie Review: Hachi, A Dog's Tale

     Hachi, A Dog’s Tale is an endearing tear-jerker based on a true-life incident that took place in Japan in the 1920s. In this Americanized movie version, Richard Gere stars as the rescuer of an adorable Akita puppy that matures into a fiercely loyal companion. While a bit slow in parts, the theme of enduring commitment, devotion, and long-suffering touches the heart and makes for a great movie for all ages.

     I’ll confess, I’m a huge Gere fan and always have been, despite the controversies surrounding his private life. As an actor, I put him up there on my list of favorites, along with Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise. Yes, I will admit I’m a Cruise fan, too! But all that aside, I was delighted to see Gere convincingly play the pure-hearted, family man, since this is such a gross departure from his typical dark, immoral characters.

      In this G rated film, Gere is the quintessential good guy, Parker Wilson, a New England college professor who finds an adorable puppy at a train station. His wife, Cate (Joan Allen), is less than pleased to have a new dog in their pristine, antique-filled home and insists that he return it to the train station the next day. When Parker learns that the owner has yet to come forward, he takes the puppy to work where a Japanese colleague suggests that the two are meant to be together. Despite the implausibility of this notion, Parker’s heart is pricked, especially when he discovers the meaning of the mysterious Japanese symbol on the dog’s collar. It is the character for the number eight (pronounced hachi), signifying good fortune. Parker promptly opens up his heart and accepts the dog as his own, calling him Hachiko or Hachi for short.

     Once Cate sees how enamored her husband is with his new friend, she agrees to have it stay. There is a very tender scene where she watches Parker roughhousing with Hachi in the back yard. The viewer senses her revelation that this adorable, playful dog will provide some unspoken nurturing to the soul that extends beyond her capability as a devoted spouse. Sure enough, when the phone rings and a caller inquires about adopting Hachi, Cate finds herself saying that the dog already has an owner. Very touching.

As Hachi grows, Parker attempts to teach the dog to fetch, but to no avail. It is clear the animal is intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for a mindless game that serves no purpose. And yet, when Parker makes his daily walk to work, Hachi takes on almost human characteristics, following him all the way to the train station like a clinging toddler. He refuses to leave until Parker walks him back to the house. This becomes a consistent routine, until finally Parker gives up and allows the dog to accompany him to the station. Hachi waits by the station entrance for a while and then wanders home only to return in the afternoon to greet Parker so they can walk home together. I felt like I was watching a gorgeously crafted documentary with beautiful, symphonic music as its backdrop and the allure of love and nature as its theme. Hachi’s adorable, yet sad expressions and intelligent tilts of the head tug at the heartstrings, signaling to the viewer that something awful is about to happen.


     Like the Lassie episodes of old, Hachi has a canine sense that life is about to change. One winter morning, he detects danger lurking in the air and does his best to prevent Parker from going to work. As a last ditch effort, he grabs the long-forgotten ball, trying to engage Parker in a game of fetch. Surprised, Parker indulges Hachi, but then must head to the train station. Hachi barks up a storm, but Parker will not be swayed. He has a music class to teach and cannot be late. Little does he realize that this will be the last time the two will ever see each other.

     Because the pace and tone of the movie up to this point is somewhat slow and methodical, what happens next takes the viewer by total surprise. In a beautifully played scene, Parker teaches a room full of impressionable music students while squeezing Hachi’s ball in his hand. He waxes eloquent, posing the question of whether recorded music becomes tarnished because of technology’s inability to capture the experience of hearing a live performance. Are there some fleeting moments in life that cannot be truly captured? That
should not be captured? But then in the next breath, his words stop and the camera focuses on the ball. Parker smiles, realizing that his relationship with Hachi is one such fleeting moment that can only be tasted through experience. In an instant, he slams to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack. Gere does a superb job in this scene, proving that his reputation as a great actor is severely underrated.

That afternoon, Hachi waits for Parker at the train station in his regular spot. By now, the townsfolk know him well and treat him as a favored citizen. He waits and waits until the wee hours of the night, but of course, Parker never appears. Soon, Parker’s son-in-law arrives and takes him home. Hachi senses a sadness has fallen on the family which cannot be explained. Time passes and Cate sells the house, sending Hachi to live with Parker’s daughter, son-in-law and new baby, Ronnie. But at the first opportunity, Hachi escapes, follows the train tracks to the old house where a new family is living, and then finds his way to the station where he waits at his regular spot for Parker to arrive. The weeks become months, the months become years, and still Hachi waits. The media picks up on the story and fans send letters and money.

For the next ten years, Hachi returns to the station at the end of each day and waits, undaunted by weather, changes in the seasons, and the general passage of time. Finally, Cate returns to town and witnesses Hachi holding fast to his vigil. She professes her love and gratitude, whispering soft words in his fur as the tears fall. Any viewer who has the slightest semblance of love for dogs in their bones will be weeping a mass of tears along with her. But the most heart-wrenching moment is to come. On a cold, winter night, as the old Hachi waits, Parker steps out of the station doors, calling the dog’s name. In the spirit realm, we see Hachi’s point of view, of master and canine reunited in death, reminiscing their joyous times together. It may sound sappy and slightly melodramatic, but it is highly emotional and wonderfully done.

The movie ends on an upbeat, with Cate telling a ten-year-old Ronnie about how Hachi found his grandpa and not the other way around. Ronnie delivers a speech to his class, retelling Hachito’s story as the epitome of the loyal and vigilant hero. When he steps off the school bus to walk home, an adorable Akita puppy is waiting for him, eager to play and explore nature while wandering down the train tracks that run behind their neighborhood. The viewer’s heart swells at hearing Ronnie call the pup “Hachi.” Life has come full circle; it is another fleeting moment that cannot be captured other than through experience.

It is interesting to note that the real Hachikō was born in Ōdate, Japan in 1923, and is considered a national iconic hero. After the death of his owner, Professor Hidesaburo Ueno, in 1925, Hachikō returned to the Shibuya train station in Tokyo the next day and every day after that for nine years until his death in March, 1934. His statue sits in front of the Shibuya train station, at the same place where he waited all those years, as a memorial of exceptional loyalty. 

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