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Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Heaven can wait for this dignified dog



Dog Star

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Takehisa Zeze
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Movies with animal stars used to be big box-office winners for the Japanese film industry -- and a cause of lament among the gaijin critics, who saw them as the Beginning of the End for Japanese cinema. In a land where giants like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu once strode, hacks were grinding out weepy epics about cute fur balls. More than an decade has passed since "Antarctica," "Koneko Monogatari (Milo and Otis)" and "Hachiko Monogatari (The Hachiko Story)" were hits. The animal picture fell out of audience favor in the 1990s, after greedy producers, both in Japan and Hollywood, went to the well (or rather the pet shop) too often.

News photo
Haruka Igawa and Etsushi Toyokawa in Takehisa Zeze's "Dog Star"

Now it is back, with the 3-D animation "Dogs and Cats" doing well here and Tatsuya Nakadai recently appearing in Takashi Tsukinoki's "To Dance With the White Dog," a romantic drama about an old man whose dead wife returns in the form of -- you guessed it -- a white dog. The newest film in this often-dismissed genre, "Dog Star," also takes aim at the mass audience -- how could it not? -- but in ways intelligently different from its predecessors.

First of all, its director is Takehisa Zeze, once proclaimed as one of the "four kings" of the "pink eiga" -- hourlong soft porn flicks that feature simulated sex scenes. Now a leader of the independent film scene (though he continues to make pink eiga to pay the rent), Zeze is a fearless trasher of cinematic conventions. His caper film "Rush" scrambles narrative logic to the point of total confusion; watching the film is like stepping inside the mind of a dementia patient. But there is also a method -- and humor -- to the madness that give "Rush" an undeniable charge.

I suspect Zeze took on the "Dog Star" assignment from producer Ryo Toshikura because he saw a similar chance to deconstruct familiar material. Which is not to say "Dog Star" is another flippy-trippy indie film; it is about as hard to understand as "Lassie Come Home," while extracting more than the standard quota of tears. But Zeze, who also wrote the script, turns the genre formula on its head. A lovable old seeing-eye dog is the film's star, but he spends most of his screen time in the form of Etsushi Toyokawa, he of the mysteriously hooded eyes and gloriously long legs, who has stirred hearts in such popular TV dramas as "Aishiteiru to Itte Kure (Say You Love Me)," "Aoshima (Blue Island)" and "Love Story."

In Hollywood terms, it's as if Richard Gere were to play a pooch, sniffing trees and romping through the grass. It's easy to imagine Zeze's eyes lighting up mischievously when Toyokawa's name was proposed for the lead. But while being a heartthrob, Toyokawa is no empty-headed hunk. Since making his screen debut in 1989's "Kimi wa Boku o Suki ni Naru (You Will Love Me)," Toyokawa has played everything from a psychic with destructive powers ("Nighthead") to a gangster with a split personality ("Otokotachi no Kaita E"), while proving that he is one of the more talented actors of his generation. So the light in Zeze's eyes probably reflected delight and relief. "With this guy," he was no doubt thinking, "this crazy thing can work" -- and it does.

The plot, as befitting a Zeze film, takes a few curious turns before Toyokawa appears. Shiro is a white seeing-eye dog who was raised by a volunteer family before being taken away for training. Now 12, he still has fond memories of Haruka, the girl who was his inseparable companion. His master is Gong (Ryo Ishibashi), a blind boxing trainer who coaches his charges by hearing their mistakes (shades of "Zatoichi").

One night, after a drink too many, Gong is hit and killed by a truck. Shiro survives, but is racked with guilt over his failure to protect his master and is going into a fatal decline, when Gong appears. God won't let him into heaven, he says, until he does at least one good deed -- and he wants that deed to be for Shiro. You have one wish, he tells the dog -- what will it be?

Shiro's wish is to take human form and visit the family that raised him. Transformed into a tall man dressed entirely in white, he tracks their scent to their house -- but learns that all but Haruka were killed in a plane crash. Now grown to womanhood, Haruka (Haruka Igawa) is teaching at a kindergarten in the countryside, far away from painful memories. Shiro hitchhikes there (the deal with Gong did not include the train fare) and finds her, but how can he get back into her life? When she discovers him sniffing her bike seat and calls him a pervert, all seems lost.

Shiro gets a job as a helper with a traveling petting zoo. The eccentric coot (Shigeru Izumiya) who runs it sees that Shiro is good with animals and, on a visit to the kindergarten, he renews his acquaintance with Haruka. This time she notices not only his odd behavior, but his kind heart -- and affection blooms. On her summer vacation, she comes to help with the petting zoo. Her insecure boyfriend (Kenjiro Tsuda), however, suspects that her new interest has more to do with Shiro than ducks and rabbits.

Meanwhile, Gong is warning Shiro against falling in love with a human. He only has a year left to live -- and love can only lead to sadness. Shiro, however, has a doglike determination to be with Haruka that even Gong can't shake. But how can he reveal his real identity to the only woman who has ever meant anything to him?

Toyokawa could have done a Jim Carrey turn with this role (Ace Ventura as the pet instead of the detective), but his talent is for hot-eyed sincerity, not manic clowning. He plays a dog, to be sure, but a dignified dog of few words who sees through humans ("You're a half-assed man," he tells the discomfited Gong). Though he looks awkward in his new human body, the way his Shiro holds himself (alert, attentive, determined) and runs (with a loping, straight-backed grace) is all dog.

If he were playing a brilliant schizophrenic scientist, Toyokawa would get a Japan Academy Award for this quality of performance; instead, he'll probably have to settle for a citation from the Japan Seeing-Eye Dog Foundation.

As Haruka, newcomer Haruka Igawa does the standard pure-hearted idol turn, with a welcome twist or two. First, she has the aura of a real dog lover (most idols are Miss Kitty types). Second, she looks as though she might have a real sex life. Give credit to Zeze, who may have spent much of his career making dirty movies but in "Dog Star" shows us the power of love, in different forms -- and different species.



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