When you see a poster for a movie directed by Lassie Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules, “Chocolat”) and starring Richard Gere, Jason Alexander and Academy Award-winner Joan Allen, you have a legitimate expectation that the film will have merit. These are heavy hitters who have a reputation for doing good work. Indeed, novelist John Irving insisted on Lassie Hallstrom as the director for “The Cider House Rules.”
Therefore, it was pretty surprising that the film “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” went straight to video…[except in Mexico, where I saw it on the big screen on April 14, 2010]. It was even more surprising to read on IMDB that it had been released in Japan on August 8th of 2009.
The film—which is, as advertised, a dog’s story—is in the tradition of 1943’s “Lassie, Come Home”,1957’s “Old Yeller,” or 2008’s “Marley and Me.” It’s a poignant revisiting of a true story that took place, originally, from May of 1925 to May of 1934 in Japan. An Akita dog was the loyal pet of Professor Eisaburo Ueno and, after the untimely death of his master, Hachiko, the dog, waited outside the Shibuya Railroad Station for his master for 9 years until the dog, too, died.
In this Americanization, the dog breed (Akita, which resembles a Huskie except for the coloring) remains unchanged and the name of the dog remains Hachiko (or “Hachi”) but the dog is seen “adopting” an American professor of music, Parker Wilson (played by Richard Gere) at the Bedridge Station in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
Director Hallstrom uses the framing device of a Wilson’s grandson, Ronnie (Kevin DeCoste) who is telling the story of his “hero” to his classmates. His “hero” is his Grandfather Wilson and Hachi, because of the unusual devotion of the stray dog he adopted, who became a bit of a local celebrity after the untimely death of his master and the dog’s long vigil at the local railroad station for his master’s return.
Since his master is Richard Gere, we lose Richard as a character mid-way through the film and we are left with Richard’s loving wife Cate (Joan Allen) and daughter Andy (Sarah Roemer) and son-in-law, who, after Richard shuffles off this mortal coil, attempt to take Hachi to live with them, when Cate Wilson (Joan Allen) decides to sell the big old house where the couple lived happily with the dog as their pet.
The devotion of the dog is certainly newsworthy and was newsworthy in Japan where the real Hachiko lived and died back in 1934. The poor Akito apparently waited faithfully at the train station every day for 9 full years, until he, too, died of natural causes.
Chris Nashawaty in the March 12, 2010 article “Movies on DVD” in Entertainment Weekly gave the film a rave review of “A-” saying, “This one’s a three-hankie gem.” He went on to say, “All I can say is, I lost it. And unless you’re made of stone, you will too.”
I guess I must be made of stone, because my thoughts on this DVD release (which I saw on the big screen only because I was in Mexico at the time, and, outside, it was pouring down rain) were not quite as teary as those of Chris Nashawaty.
Richard Gere is one of my favorite actors, but his scenes with the dog just didn’t wash, for me. Both Richard and Hachi did their best, but I couldn’t really feel the “bond” between Richard and Hachi. Also, I had a real problem with the indifference of Cate Parker, the widow (Joan Allen) when her husband has died and his dog refuses to stay with the daughter and son-in-law. (Hachi keeps running away and is shown living under an abandoned railroad caboose in some really inclement weather.)
There is, in fact, a scene that shows Cate Wilson (Joan Allen) making a trip back to her former hometown on the train a very long time later and discovering that everyone in town knows that Hachi is keeping this forlorn vigil. Does she make an effort to take the dog home with her? No.
Do the daughter and son-in-law make an effort to keep the dog at their affluent suburban home and care for it? Yes and no. There are forlorn scenes of the dog looking miserable in the daughter’s backyard and looking even more miserable in their living room, where their infant son Ronnie (sitting in one of those child seats on wheels that practically screams “Ramming speed!”) is shown repeatedly running the child seat into the poor grief-stricken dog.
I went into the film with an open mind and high hopes, primarily because of the truly talented people who were involved in making it. My husband was less enthused, but getting drenched in the downpour outside didn’t seem like a real winning strategy, either, so we paid first-run money to see this now-on-DVD film.
I can agree with Chris Nashawaty that this film deserved to have a first-run release. I agree that some inveterate dog-lovers will love the element of pathos evoked by the sight of the faithful dog awaiting the master who will never come home again (for 9 years, yet). The dog was good. Richard was okay—not authentic, but okay. If I’m paying to see Richard Gere, I’d like to have seen a little more interaction between Parker and Cate. However, all involved in the film did their jobs well. Personally, I’m a cat person, and no self-respecting cat would wait 9 seconds, let alone 9 years, master or no master, and certainly not in weather as inclement as that portrayed in some really creative shots that show the tree leaves turning green, brown, and bare, year after year. That’s just me, however, and I’m a sucker for a sad story just like everybody else.
However, plot-wise, I had the following reservations about the film:
1) Why did the film have to be “Americanized” at all? It’s the story of a Japanese professor and his dog. Why not tell the story truthfully and place it in Japan ? Do we really need to bring in Richard Gere and put him in the lead role in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, with Jason Alexander (George from “Seinfeld”) as the stationmaster?
Why didn’t Joan Allen as Cate, the bereaved widow of Richard Gere as Parker Wilson, take better care of the dog after her husband dies? Poor Hachi looks really scruffy by the end of the film, and one wonders where the poor animal sleeps at night in cold weather and who feeds him on a regular basis?
Why didn’t the bereaved daughter (Andy Wilson, played by Sarah Roemer) and son-in-law try to take better care of the poor dog? And, for that matter, why didn’t they keep little Ronnie away from him? (Maybe Ronnie-abuse is why Hachi kept running away).
If I have just ruined the film for you, please remember that the story has been in circulation since 1925, when the dog began waiting for his master in Japan (not Rhode Island) at the Shibuya Railroad Station, where the poor thing waited patiently until 1934. Also remember that this deserving film didn’t even get a chance at a first-run theater showing, which seems to be becoming increasingly more prevalent in today’s Hollywood (distribution deals are not as plentiful, apparently).
Rather than pathos, I felt pissed off that the widow and the grief-stricken daughter didn’t do a better job of taking care of the poor dog, after his master died. My anger at Joan Allen trumped my feelings of sadness and sympathy for the poor beast who waited for his dead master for 9 years.
However, if you’re a big Dog Person, you might enjoy this film, anyway. Or, if you want, you can rent either “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Marley and Me” (2008) and get your doggy downer that way.