Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dog movies: Hachi

Some months ago I watched the movie "Hachi - a dog's tale" which was based on a true story. I had been only vaguely aware of the existence of the Akita breed before that, so I found it rather informative. The movie is sure to bring a tear to the eye of any dog lover. I'm not doing a proper movie review here, just sharing some thoughts. 

In a nutshell, a college professor (Richard Gere) returning home by train one night happens upon a lost puppy at the train station. He initially tries to get rid of him, asking around and putting up posters. The professor's Japanese friend identifies the puppy as an Akita and explains a little bit about the breed, also identifying the tag hanging from his neck (the number 8 - "hachi") and that becomes his name. Before long the professor falls in love with Hachi, decides to keep him and they become the best of friends.

After Hachi is past the puppy stage, he eventually begins accompanying the professor to the train station in the mornings to see him off, and returning to the train station at night to meet him when his train arrives. One day, while delivering a lecture, the professor dies, and the poor dog waits for him long into the night. Hachi returns to the station to wait the next day, days turn into months, and months turn into years. As Hachi grows old he continues to return faithfully to the train station every day just before the arrival of the train. After 10 lonely years, Hachi, waiting in the snowy night, breathes his last. Those of us who've suffered the loss of a beloved dog can appreciate the Rainbow Bridge reference in that final scene.

At the end of the movie there is a tiny blurb mentioning the historical Hachi, who lived in Japan during the years 1923-1935, and a picture of the Hachi statue at the Shibuya train station where he watched and waited. I was a bit disappointed to learn that I'd just watched an adaptation, rather than the real story. I eventually discovered that a Japanese movie had been made about Hachi, and so I tracked it down. The 1987 movie, Hachiko Monogatari, was ranked #1 at the Japanese box office that year.

The movie was not terribly easy to find - it wasn't on amazon or at any of the usual places I buy movies, but with the help of google I was able to find a vendor, and ordered a copy for my collection. Hachiko Monogatori had subtitles, but being already familiar with the basic story, I could get the gist of the movie without them.

Hachiko Monogatari, being a Japanese film, moves at a different pace, and has a quality distinctly different from the remake. It begins with the birth of a litter of puppies one snowy night in Odate, Akita prefecture, and ends with the death of one of those puppies one snowy night near Shibuya station, Tokyo, some 12 years later. 

In between is the story of a bond between man and dog which is at once edifying and saddening. Just as shown in the remake, the professor, who initially didn't want the puppy, soon fell in love with him and they became the closest of friends. The dog soon began to accompany the professor to and from the train station, and waited each evening for the train to return.

Professor Ueno, although cordial, was reserved and cool towards other people. Yet in this dog he saw something that prompted him to love without reserve. He literally fell in love with Hachiko, his pride and joy. While Dr Ueno was calmly inscrutable around his co-workers, acquaintances and family, his face lit up when he saw Hachi, and he seemed to come alive during the time they spent together. Hachiko had 18 happy months until the day Professor Ueno suffered a fatal stroke while delivering a lecture. The remainder of Hachi's life was a lonely, dangerous vigil. 

Dr Ueno had regularly groomed Hachi, carefully removing fleas and bathing him, but from all appearances it's likely that Hachi was never groomed again after the professor's death. Increasingly feral, Hachi grew old on the streets, returning to the train station each evening to wait for his master. Some some years later the widow, who had moved away, read a story about Hachi in the newspaper and traveled to Shibuya to see him. Moved to tears at his condition and surprised that he continued to wait, she hugged him: "Oh Hachiko, how you must have suffered!". She wanted to take him home to care for him but after so many years on his own he was elusive and street wise, and determined to wait near the station.

I was struck by how quickly the professor was forgotten after his death. His house was sold, his possessions divided and disposed of, and his family and friends went on with their lives. But Hachiko was heartbroken, and would spend the rest of his life longing to see his friend again. 

The producers of the 2009 remake did a good job of conveying most of the core themes from the original story, and I appreciated the tribute they gave to the actual events through the various Japanese connections in the movie. But subtle details were definitely lost in translation. The American film tended to smooth over some things - the friction between the professor and his wife over the dog, his lack of real friendship apart from Hachiko, and the dog's troubles after the death of his best friend and guardian, which left him alone in a world of people who were at best indifferent to him.

While the remake was decent in it's own way, and will reach a relatively wide audience owing to the star factor, I feel that Hachiko Monogatari more fully and properly portrayed the bittersweet tale. In a word, I found Hachiko Monogatari haunting.

After seeing these films I wanted to know more, and started gathering information on the Akita breed. They will bond with their humans and be incredibly loyal and protective, but are wary of outsiders. Normally calm and docile, they can however be quite strong willed and, at well over 100 pounds, a handful for anyone. They can be aggressive towards other dogs, and are not afraid of a fight. Clearly not a dog for just anyone - and the last thing I want to do is encourage a fad among the irresponsible which will end only badly for the dogs - but I could certainly see an Akita in my home.

Interestingly, the so-called "American Akita" is now considered a distinct breed from the "Japanese Akita". The American Akitas all came from Japan after World War 2, and were representative of the dogs popular in their namesake Akita prefecture at the time. 

The ancient breed was a prized "hunter's dog" (Matagi Inu) for many centuries and was popular with the Samurai, who also used them for combat. They were crossed with Mastiff and other foreign breeds to increase their stature.

During World War 2, the hardships on the populace contributed to a near extinction for these beautiful dogs, who were killed for food and for their fur, which was used in military clothing. Some were crossed with GSDs, a protected breed, in a bid for the survival of the puppies. But for the courageous actions of a small number of Japanese dog lovers who helped to preserve the breed in remote locations, they might well have been completely wiped out. 

American GIs stationed in post-war Japan loved the Akitas, and many bought these dogs and returned home with them. Japanese breeders worked to meet the demand, and as more Akitas came to the US, American Akita breeders grew steadily in number. At the same time, a concerted effort was made in post war Japan to restore the original characteristics of the breed to what was considered the ideal; to weed out the influence of the foreign breeds and restore the original Matagi Inu.

As a result, the breed characteristics have diverged over the past 60 years. American Akitas are larger and heavier than their Japanese counterparts, reflecting the influences of the other breeds, and tend to have large, bear-like heads, in contrast to the cute, fox-like heads of the new Japanese Akitas. The American Akitas also have greater variation in colors, often sporting a dark face mask which is considered a defect in the Japanese Akita. 

Representative modern Japanese (L) and American Akita

There is more information below on the history of the breed, the split between the American and Japanese Akitas, and the Akita standard in general. 

Hachiko was an unusual dog, tremendously loyal to his human companion, and that kind of loyalty is the stuff of legend. This story, however, transcends breed - it made me value my own dogs all the more, and raised the question of what would happen to them if I were to die. Would they be dumped off at a shelter, perhaps to be taken home by someone who would never love them as I did? or by someone who might despise or mistreat them? I really need to start thinking about a good plan, and it's something every dog owner should think about.

I've seen my fair share of dog movies, but to me the story of Hachiko stands above the rest - but do feel free to suggest other inspirational dog movies. If I find a good one I'll mention it here.

Further Reading -
Behind the film "Hachi: a dog's tale"
The Amazing And True Story Of Hachiko The Dog
Hachi: a dog's tale on wikipedia
Hachiko Monogatari on wikipedia
General information about the Akita breed
The Akita Dilemma - One Breed Or Two?
Book - Dog Man: an uncommon life on a faraway mountain


  1. Hachiko's story was amazing. It is even more fascinating to see other dogs that have shown similar acts/lives of devotion. Greyfriars Bobby is one example. Chips, a war dog from WWII is another I saw a lengthly list on wikipedia that is worth reading.

    Best Wishes

  2. Jake, I see you have added some info to your original piece and I find it very interesting and informative. The breed split is an interesting factor in your article. Well done.

  3. Great review of Hachi; it is an amazing story.

  4. In case you can't find the Japanese DVD, you can watch on youtube, here:
    Hachiko Monogatari (full movie in Japanese)


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