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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

It's a dog's life if you're a teenager

Sayonara, Kuro

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Joji Matsuoka
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

I have nothing against dogs, save the ones that nip at my heels when I am riding a bike or get amorous with my leg when I am trying to watch television. Movies and TV shows with canine heroes are another matter. As a snarky teenager, I drew Mad magazine-style parodies of "Lassie." As an adult, I resisted renting "Beethoven" videos for my kids (though I roared at "Dog Show," Christopher Guest's vivisection of dog mania in the United States). When Akira Kurosawa complained to me about Japanese studios who pander to animal lovers ("If a movie about a cat does well, they make one about a dog."), I nodded in solemn agreement (though Kurosawa later had the professor-hero of his last film, "Madadayo," shed hot tears over the loss of his pet cat).

News photo
Satoshi Tsumabuki in "Sayonara, Kuro"

So perhaps I am not the best choice to review "Sayonara, Kuro (Goodbye, Kuro)," Joji Matsuoka's film about a dog who becomes the beloved pet of an entire high school -- if the ones doing the choosing are the film's producers, that is.

In most movies and TV shows starring Man's Best Friend, dogs aren't really dogs, but human wish-fulfillment figures that are either cute, comic or courageous beyond belief (or toleration).

The title heroine of "Sayonara, Kuro," however, is neither a comedian nor a paragon, but a black dog of indeterminate origin who is just . . . doggish. Beyond a soulful stare, Kuro does little that could be called performing in the Hollywood doggie-movie sense. She is, in fact, notable for her silence and tact, useful qualities for surviving in a provincial high school in the 1960s, where rules were seldom bent to accommodate yapping mutts in classrooms. She also seems to know when her human masters need her services -- or simply her presence.

The story revolves less around Kuro and her adventures than the various crises of the humans in her life. These crises may derive from a hundred seishun eiga ("youth movies"), but Matsuoka, who made the pioneering gay-themed drama "Kira Kira Hikaru (Twinkle)" in 1992, locates his story so specifically in its time (mid-60s to mid-70s) and place (rural Nagano) that it feels, if not fresh, at least alive and real.

There was, in fact, a dog named Kuro, who not only resided at Matsumoto Fukashi High School in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, from 1961 until her death in 1972, but also inspired a best-selling book and a local organization that raised 100 million yen for the production of the film under review. So, the real-life Kuro was something of a wonder dog after all.

In the film, we first see Kuro as a puppy belonging to a little girl who lives with her parents in a run-down minka (farmhouse). Then one day Mommy and Daddy pack up and move, taking everything but Kuro.

Finding nothing to eat in the abandoned house, Kuro wanders down the mountain, where she encounters Kyosuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a teenager on his way to school. Kyosuke gives Kuro part of his lunch -- and she follows him.

At school, preparations are underway for the annual festival. One of Kyosuke's friends, Mamoru (Ryuta Sato), is appearing on a parade float as Meiji-era statesman Saigo Takamori -- and Kuro is drafted as Saigo's canine companion. Standing as still as the statue of Saigo's pooch in Ueno Park, Kuro is an immediate hit with the crowd -- and is soon adopted as a school mascot, over the objections of a dog-fearing teacher (Sansei Shiomi).

Although Kuro finds a comfortable home with the grouchy-but-kindly school caretaker (Hisashi Igawa), the course of Kyosuke's life does not runs smooth. He and his best friend Koji Kobe (Hirofumi Arai) are cramming to go to college in Tokyo -- and both have a crush on the same girl, Yukiko Igarashi (Ayumi Ito). She, on the other hand, plans to stay at home after graduation -- and can't choose between her two suitors. When Koji asks her to drop Kyosuke in favor of him, she refuses -- and he roars off on his motorbike.

There is an accident and Yukiko, feeling responsible, edges toward the abyss -- when Kuro's calming presence saves her.

Forward 10 years. Though now a school institution, Kuro is on her last legs. Among her new masters is Kenji Morishita (Yuta Kanai), a senior who has quarreled with his former best friend and resigned himself to getting a job after graduation instead of going to college. Then Kuro's health takes a sudden turn for the worse -- and Kenji is galvanized into action, raising the money from his teachers and classmates for a life-saving operation. About the same time Kyosuke, now a veterinarian, arrives in town for Mamoru's wedding. When he hears about Kuro, he decides to postpone his return to Tokyo. He also rediscovers long-buried feelings for Yukiko.

While adding the obligatory heart-warming touches to this story, Matsuoka does not create a blatant tearjerker. He does, however, recapture the atmosphere of the Nagano foothills in winter, with their crisp air, brisk winds and roads stretching out under open skies all the way into the storybook mountains. The mid-winter setting was also a good choice narratively, underlining, as it does, the characters' purity, innocence -- and isolation. Kuro is much the same dog throughout -- and her seeming indifference to the cold makes her a steady, warming presence in her adopted humans' lives.

Kuro could have played a smaller role without hurting the film, which is about youths facing that classic provincial choice -- leave for the big, bad, exciting world outside, or stay and accept a limited, if more centered, life at home. But she gives non-Japanese viewers an insight into the Japanese obsession with cute bundles of fur. What the film doesn't explain, though, is why so many Japanese discard those bundles of fur when they're not that cute anymore. That, however, would be a different film -- one not nearly as popular as "Sayonara, Kuro."

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