Japan may be known as a nation that loves cats (it is, after all, a country where cat cafés are flourishing) but don’t underestimate how much affection the country has for dogs, too. From the much-loved Shiba and Akita breeds to the tiny, perfectly groomed terriers trotting around Tokyo, make no mistake – Japan is also a nation of dogs. A number of Japanese movies have depicted the strong bond between humans and dogs, from epic dramas to gentle family tales. Here’s a selection of six of the best.
1. Hachiko Monogatari (ハチ公物語)
This 1987 film based on true events concerns “Japan’s most faithful dog,” Hachiko, – the very same one immortalized in a statue outside Shibuya Station. A huge hit in Japan, and later adapted into an English version starring Richard Gere, Hachiko Monogatari is bound to pull on the heartstrings. It depicts the relationship between an Akita dog, Hachi (affectionately dubbed “Hachiko”), and the professor who takes him in. The professor and Hachi become so close that without the two realizing, Hachi begins a daily routine that surprises everyone in the neighborhood: he would meet his master at Shibuya Station every evening after his work, to accompany his commute home. But when the professor suddenly dies, our canine protagonist continues to go to the station day after day for nine years until his own death, continuing to wait for his bereaved master’s return home. The real Hachi is said to have lived from 1923 until 1935. An ultimate tear-jerking production, the film also has an interesting backdrop in recreating early twentieth-century Tokyo.
Main cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Kaoru Yachigusa
Director: Seijiro Koyama
2. 10 Promises to My Dog (犬と私の10の約束)
A tale about a girl and her dog, this 2008 film, set in beautiful Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, draws from the “10 Commandments of Dog Ownership” (which is written from the perspective of a dog). With a largely absent father and a dying mother, Akari takes in a golden retriever and calls him Socks. Socks becomes her closest companion and chief support after her mother dies, but over the next decade, as circumstances change and Akari becomes an adult trapped in her own complicated grown-up life, she is not always able to keep Socks with her and even starts neglecting to visit him. But when Socks is on his deathbed, Akari rushes to his side and rereads the “10 Commandments” to see whether she kept her promises to her dog, who was there for her at every turn.
Main cast:Rena Tanaka, Ryo Kase
3. Antarctica (南極物語)
Set in the vast, unforgiving landscape of the southern continent, Antarctica relays the true story of a team of Sakhalin sled dogs left behind by a Japanese research team in 1958. When the expedition has to be rescued due to terrible weather conditions, the 15 dogs are left behind to fend for themselves. When they return to Antarctica a year later, the handlers find that two dogs, Taro and Jiro, have miraculously survived the elements. In real life, Taro and Jiro became national heroes and their bodies are embalmed and on display in Hokkaido and Ueno, Tokyo, respectively. The movie, which captures themes of perseverance and loyalty, was a huge hit in Japan and later adapted as a Hollywood feature called Eight Below.
Main cast:Ken Takakura, Tsunehiko Watase
4. Seven Days of Himawari and Her Puppies (ひまわりと子犬の7日間)
In a pet shelter where dogs are euthanized after seven days if their owner fails to collect them, a mother dog and her puppies are living on borrowed time. Shoji, a man who works at the shelter, has to explain to his daughter what happens to the dogs and when she realizes, she refuses to talk to him. Shoji tries to extend the mother dog’s time, but as time runs out, he joins forces with his daughter and a vet friend to save her and her puppies. This melodrama depicts the harsh reality of some animal shelters in Japan, but is ultimately a story of love and empathy.
Main cast:Masato Sakai, Miki Nakatani
5. Kinako (きな子〜見習い警察犬の物語〜)
Based on the true story of dog trainer Kyoko and an apprentice police dog called Kinako, this is a sentimental tale about overcoming the odds. Kyoko is told that Kinako is too weak to become a police dog, but she is determined to make the Labrador retriever into one. After a few years of training, however, Kinako is still a bumbling but adorable failure – when Kyoko enters them in a police-dog competition, Kinako’s clumsiness even makes her a hit among the public. As she fails test after test, Kyoko finally loses hope and leaves the training school, but in the end, Kinako proves that she really can be a valuable police dog. Set in Kagawa prefecture in southern Japan, this movie is also a beautiful travel journey into Japan’s stunning sceneries.
Main cast:Kaho, Yasufumi Terawaki
6. Star Watching Dog (星守る犬)
Loosely based on a manga of the same name, this is a story about an unnamed man and his dog, Happie, recounted after both of them are found dead in the man’s van. A social worker called Kyosuke is assigned to the case and tries to piece together the last days of their lives, using receipts found in the vehicle to follow the trail. The journey takes Kyosuke across the country as he retraces the man’s final journey. Along the way, as he discovers how strongly Happie and his master were devoted to each other, he is also reminded of a very special dog he was close to as a child, who used to sit in a field of sunflowers gazing at the stars.
Main cast:Toshiyuki Nishida, Tetsuji Tamayama
Director: Tomoyuki Takimoto
For any dog lover, these films will strike a chord as they show how dogs can bring out the best in humans. Whether sentimental, sad or comedic, the Japanese take on man’s best friend is bound to warm your heart.
Text: Kiri Falls