Richard Gere finds a puppy at a train station. It grows up into a deeply loyal dog. And that’s it. And yet a beautiful, emotionally engaging film–Hachi: A Dog’s Tale–has been painted around that elegant, uncomplicated premise.
In some ways, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale—a simple story of the bond between a man and his very loyal canine–is a very strange film.
For starters, it’s an American remake of a Japanese film that itself was based on a true Japanese story. In 1920s Japan there was a real Akita named Hachiko who has become legendary in that country for a straightforward act of canine loyalty. He did not pull anyone from a burning house, fight off a mountain lion, or find a lost child. But what he did is somehow more touching by nature of its unassuming steadfast grace.
What’s odd about Hachi—directed by Lasse Hallström (Dear John, Chocolat) and starring Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and Jason Alexander–is that it’s a remake of a 1987 Japanese film version of Hachiko’s tale. The current G-rated movie was released into theaters in Asia and Europe (as Hachiko: A Dog’s Story), but not the United States—until now on DVD.
Watching Hachi, you can almost understand why it didn’t get a US theatrical release–but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have. You see, Hachi has no real plot—at least not in the A begats B begats C notion that we normally think of movie narrative. The film opens with an adorable Akita puppy shipped from a Japanese monastery to the United States, where he’s accidentally waylaid at a Rhode Island train station. Gere’s character, a college professor, finds the dog and of course, despite the objections of his wife (Allen) and his own misgivings, he falls for it and keeps it.
And that’s really about it for much of the film. Gere finds a nice dog, they play and bond. The film doesn’t gin up a lot of flash or fuss around its tale or tack on subplots and interpersonal dramas. There are no contrived crises. No melodramatic conflicts past the wife’s initial, quickly converted disapproval. There is just a man and his dog, happy together.
Given Hachi’s gentle slightness, you can see where perhaps theater audiences might have started to wonder, “Is this all there is?” But the home DVD viewing experience is often more personal, more open and intimate—and seen with those eyes, Hachi feels reassuring rather than boring. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a good-looking film, filled with pleasant actors of a certain age and warm, rustic Thomas-Kincaid-style homes, barns, and train stations.
Eventually two things do happen, one following from the other, and they are the reason the real Hachiko has his own statue at a train station in Japan. But in the film these things don’t come with thunderclaps or great portents—they just happen as such things do in real life, without much fanfare. Hallström’s built a film around a very small but touching story and he maintains a quiet earnestness about that story’s low-key beauty.
Sure, it’s schmaltzy. You can criticize Hachi as sappy, manipulative, and thematically thin as a greeting card–I suspect that’s another factor that kept it out of American theaters. But tempting as it may be to dismiss it as a lazy exercise in cheap emotional pandering, it’s not. Hachi is a purposefully and well-constructed film in which its sparse narrative structure becomes the point.
This is not Marley & Me, where we see the dog in terms of how he fits into the humans’ lives. This really is Hachi’s story, told from his point of view, and the fact his story is not melodramatic or epic gives Hachi a somewhat poetic Zen quality—it feels like a haiku, powered by its minimalism. (On the other hand, Hallström’s occasional use of a black & white “dog’s eye view” cam is too artificial, at times jarring you out of the film’s spell.)
In the end, Hachi may not have a lot to say, but what it does say is deeply moving. Its one idea, one point and purpose is to show with great respect and reverence the honest connection between human and dog. And yes, if you’ve ever owned a dog, you will surely cry. Not at anything “bad” that happens in Hachi (no animals or humans are imperiled or violently harmed in the film), but for how touching and steady handed the portrayal of that bond is.