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Friday, March 4, 2011

'Wasao'

Another dog movie whose plot is worse than its bite


Japan is now a country with more dogs and cats (23 million in 2009) than children under 16 (17 million, same year). As both a parent and a dog owner here, I understand why: Kids are enormously expensive to raise in Japan and, given the current grim employment situation, often live off Mommy and Daddy's largess well into adulthood. What do the parents get for their decades of sacrifice? Increasingly, a lonely existence in their old age, with only the occasional welfare worker checking in — or the kids collecting their pension checks after they're dead.

Wasao Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Familiar tail: "Wasao" expands on the real-life exploits of the eponymous pup, who was rescued by a woman running a grilled- squid shop on the coast. © "WASAO" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Yoshinari Nishikori
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 5, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But dogs, as Yoshinari Nishikori's new drama ("dogudrama"?) "Wasao" makes clear in every sentimentalized frame, are loyal, lovable beasts who can live, if necessary, off the land. (My wife, of course, would kill me if I tried that experiment with our poodle.) And even when the title pooch, a white Akita, grows to the size of a small bear, he's still monstrously adorable (or as Japanese states it so succinctly, busa-kawa, or ugly-cute). Can you say the same about your overweight, out-of-work, 30-year-old son, playing video games in his pajamas until five in the morning?

In its outlines, the film's story is faithful to the true-life tale, widely circulated on the Internet and in the media, of an Akita (also the star of the film) who was abandoned as a puppy, but rescued and raised by a woman running a grilled-squid shop in the coastal town of Ajigasawa in Aomori Prefecture (which is used as the film's location).

Also, instead of hiring a trainer to run Wasao through his scripted paces or using a trained stand-in, the filmmakers decided to let the big lug be his own rambunctious self (though an even more adorable Akita puppy is used in the early scenes). This gives Wasao a certain credibility, but makes him a passive presence rather than an involved actor through much of the film. It's as if Lassie, that ultimate canine thespian of screen and television, were to be filmed trotting aimlessly around town rather than saving little Timmy, stuck at the bottom of a well.

The story, designed to maximize audience tears, has little to do with reality, however. Wasao's first owner is Akira (Masaki Izawa), a boy who loves him dearly, but when the pup innocently causes a family tragedy, he is sent away. Escaping his new home, he tries to find his way back to Akira, but ends up instead at the squid shop of the kindly Setsuko (Hiroko Yakushimaru).

By this time, he is fully grown and, after long months of living on his own, wary of humans. But Setsuko gradually wins his trust and soon he is a familiar, welcome presence to her and those around her, from her silent if understanding hubby (Mitsuru Hirata) to a trio of garrulous codgers who frequent her shop.

The drama, however, is far from finished. As the town frantically prepares for its annual triathlon, even the codgers get off their duffs and start training. Meanwhile, local farmers engage a glinty-eyed hunter (Takashi Sasano) to kill whatever big, furry animal is destroying their livestock. And little Akira can't forget about his precious pooch.

There are several human subplots, including the quests of certain triathaloners to prove this or show that, but the third-act crises are straight from the dog-movie cliche file. Akira doesn't fall down a well, but the poor kid spends entirely too much time in blubbery, trembly-lipped mode, and in situations completely predictable.

But Yakushimaru, a former teen idol who plays the sweet-tempered wife of the excitable garage owner in the hit "Always" films, holds the sugar count down, while bonding convincingly with her canine costar. And the picturesque town and its surrounding fields, forests and seacoast look like dog heaven compared with the pavements of Tokyo.

Finally, Wasao, that force of furry nature, rises triumphantly above the hammy acting and formulaic plot twists around him. But you can see him galumphing on the film's beach (if not in nearly as clean a state as on screen) on YouTube. All "Wasao" does is dress the video up in the bells and whistles of formula and charge admission for it. How long till dog-lovers get wise to this cute (or calculating) pet trick?


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