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Star Watching Dog – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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An unidentified middle aged man is found dead in his car near a camping ground on a mountain in Hokkaido. His dead dog, an Akita, lays next to him. The dog died approximately six months after the man’s death. There isn’t any identification found on the deceased man.

City Hall employee Kyousuke Okutsu is then assigned to uncover the man’s identity for a proper funeral. When Kyosuke investigates the scene he discovers a receipt from a thrift store inside the car. Kyosuke’s investigation begins in earnest as he traces the man’s last journey. Along the way, Kyosuke is reminded of his own past and his star watching dog Kuro. Kyosuke finally learns how the man and his faithful dog spent their last days …

It’s easy to pigeonhole a movie about dogs into the hackneyed “family” category–after all, Star Watching Dog was brought to us by the same director as Soup Opera (Tomoyuki Takimoto). Contrarily, this film takes a grounding approach, tragically exposing the realities of life in post economically-scoured Japan, but without lacking sentimentality. If anything, any hint of corniness can be relegated to its status as an adaptation of Takashi Murakami’s Manga cartoon Stargazing Dog.

Lonely caseworker Okutsu, played by well-known actor Tetsuji Tamayama (Nana, Boss, Kasshem), becomes obsessed with the case of a man found dead in a field in Hokkaido, whose dog died beside him months later. Okutsu, who once had a dog himself, sets off on a quest to find out what happened to said man, Tomita (Yoichi Nukumizu–also of Boss) and his dog Happy. Along the way Okutsu meets various struggling characters who lead him to solve the mystery of Tomita’s death.

Okutsu’s story hardly serves to strengthen the narrative, only to supply a structural framework for what is revealed as the film’s pound of flesh–and that is Tomita’s tale. The dissipation of his family life and subsequent bonding with the very dog he once resisted provides the film’s true pathos, rather than Okutsu’s loner lament. Though it is clear why Okutsu is drawn to such a case.

This weakness is partially due to a screenplay that is inconsistent. It is hard to tell which lines reflect the form of comic blurbs, and which are just the result of poor writing, for the filler dialogue reads too conspicuously. Okutsu’s coworker invites him to a party, saying, “There will be tons of pretty girls there,” to which Okutsu replies, “There’s plenty of that in books.” We are sideswiped with obvious one-liners, but this again reflects the camp of a Manga-adapted work, as well as Japanese Cinema’s theatrical origins.

Takimoto’s stylistic choices clearly reflect that of the story’s animated predecessor. Dramatic lighting and saturated colors fill the screen, almost theatrically, while various frames place Tomita and Happy amongst daunting shots of nature. Takimoto seems to be emphasizing the characters’ insignificance in contrast with the magnitude of the universe that surrounds them, and cinematographer Takeshi Hamada captures fields of sunflowers and forests of withering cedars in an epic storybook fashion.

The film succeeds in employing the magical realism that the book demands, using match-cuts to give the illusion that Okutsu and Tomita are sharing the same space, despite its very impossibility. While the Manga is told from the dog’s point of view, there are moments in the film in which we are taken into Happy’s subconscious, as he remembers his owner. As this is only provided for us in specifically solemn moments, it stings like salt on the wound, by sharing with the dog a common humanity.

Where technique fails is in slow-motion sequences, which almost always provoke the gritting of teeth, and once again serve to hammer home the same sense of heartache. However, it is easy for the viewer to become less enthralled with the small failures of a Manga adaptation to screen, than the subject matter itself which hits disturbingly close to a nerve that any soul-baring person possesses.

While it seems as though we have to trudge through some unnecessary scenes, including annoyances of the teenage girl who accompanies Okutsu on his journey, Yuki (Umika Kawashima), the sprinkling of poetic language, and visible depth to the story keep us there till the last forty-five minutes when the chronicle comes together like a located constellation. Okutsu recalls his grandfather stating, “All of us live our lives like the dogs watching the stars…aiming high.”

Alas, despite the desperation of so many characters that Okutsu encounters along the way that have been weathered by a violent economical state, including an innkeeper brilliantly played by Kimiko Yo, there is a resilience to their nature. Tomita is instantly portrayed as a kind-hearted man who puts the well being of others before himself, and this selflessness is hardly anything we are reminded of in Western cinema–let alone philosophy. “It’s just so sad that the links between people are weakening,” Tomita bemoans. He is clearly enlightened to the failures of a deluded society, and through his character (and Yoichi Nukumizuwe’s convincing performance), we, the audience, are also forced to engage in a similar train of thought.

2008’s Wendy and Lucy exhibits a likened insight with a subtler approach, but still sticks loyally to Western individualism. While Star Watching may have a less modest approach, it certainly asserts more depth than the former, as it recognizes the connectedness of the individual to his environment, inspiring larger questions, rather than burying us in a characters’ isolation.

While Tomita may have suffered, he was still able to form a strong bond with Happy, and this is the point the film effectively delivers. In a time when people are losing their possessions, their status, and their livelihood, what is important is the relations we have with one another. Rather than an exposition of a harsh reality, Star Watching Dog is much more. It is a hefty reminder of that which can’t be denied, and what we as humans ultimately live for.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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