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Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

by on October 16, 2009
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“Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” is unapologetically a tear-jerker. You might resent being emotionally manipulated by this film, but I challenge even the most hard-hearted moviegoer not to spill some saltwater while watching it.

“Hachi” is based on a true story that is very famous in Japan of an Akita dog that waited every day at the train station for its master — even years after the man had passed away.

There’s an iconic statue of Hachiko at the station, and a Japanese film version came out in 1987, but the story remains largely unknown in the States.

Director Lasse Hallström teams up again with Richard Gere to tell an affecting Americanized version that retains many of the Japanese notes about loyalty and love between man and canine.

Gere plays Parker Wilson, a music professor who stumbles upon the lost puppy while disembarking from a train at his quaint little town of Bedridge. Hachi was sent from a Japanese monastery, but his shipping tag was torn off. The befuddled station manager (Jason Alexander) refuses to accept the pup, saying he’d have to just take it to the pound.

So Parker takes the little guy home, despite the stern warning of his wife Cate (the always-wonderful Joan Allen) that they not keep him. They’ve apparently recently lost a dog she was close to, and as middle-aged empty nesters, Cate isn’t eager to see a four-legged interloper.

Soon enough, of course, Hachiko (the name comes from the number eight, which was written on his collar tag) becomes a full-fledged member of the family.

The primary relationships is between the dog and Parker, but Allen has a great scene with Hachi where you can see the reluctance just melt away from her face.

Hachi is a loving but willful companion — for instance, he refuses to play fetch, despite Parker’s many training attempts. He also ignores his master’s instruction not to follow him to the train station for work every day. He even shows up again promptly at 5 p.m. to wait for Parker to step off the train again.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away in saying that Parker dies about two-thirds of the way through the film — after all, it’s the dog’s behavior after his master’s death that made his story so unforgettable.

The film really amps up the pulling of heartstrings at this point, as the dog continues his increasingly grim journey to the train station every afternoon, eternally hopefully that his master — his friend — will greet him again.

Eventually, a reporter hears the remarkable dog’s tale, and the town rallies around its most famous denizen.

The breadth and depth of Hallström’s work (“Chocolat,” “My Life As a Dog,” “The Shipping News”) suggests he might represent Sweden’s finest cinematic export since the Bergmans — Ingrid and Ingmar. He and rookie screenwriter Stephen P. Lindsey manage to toe the correct side of the line between overt sentiment and mushy smarm.

“Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” is a great, big wet lick to the face, and a welcome one.

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