Let's not beat around the bush: animal stories can be far more uplifting, or heartbreaking, than any story based around human protagonists and their plights. There's a special place in all of us for most animals, and not just the stomach. When a human cries on screen, it can affect us, but when we see an animal struggle in a similar fashion, with human emotions, it will affect us, there's no can about it.
Dewey Readmore Books (yes, that was his voted on name, unfortunately...) inspired many with his uplifting attitude, after being found left in one of the book return slots in a library. Faith may be recognizable more by picture than name, as the dog born with severely deformed front legs, but the courage she has shown in overcoming adversity to inspire others has far outweighed the shock appeal of any pictures. But neither of those critters (Faith is still alive. Dewey passed away in November 2006.), or any of their brethren, could compare to the story of Hachiko, the Akita who lingered in the Shibuya railroad station in Japan in the 20's and 30's, waiting for his master, Hidesaburo Ueno, years after Ueno had passed on while away at work. Considering some humans can't even wait for their lovers to return from a weeklong work trip before pursuing new partners to bide their time, the devotion shown by this dog defines the very word itself. The story is ripe for cinematic and literary adaptation.
'Hachi: A Dog's Tale' (originally called 'Hachi: A Dog's Story,' and 'Hachiko: A Dog's Story') centers around the life of Hachiko, a young Akita pup found abandoned at the Bedridge train station by Professor Parker Wilson (Richard Gere). While his wife Cate (Joan Allen, from the 'Bourne' films) isn't thrilled with the idea of bringing a dog home, eventually Hachi breaks down her resistance and becomes a part of the family. Hachi soon starts following Wilson to the train station, and begins waiting for him when he comes home on the same train. But one day, Wilson doesn't come home. 'Hachi' is the tale of loyalty and love, in the purest sense, as the lengths gone to by man's best friend define the words better than any human act ever could.
'Hachi' isn't the first film inspired by the story of Hachiko, as Seijirô Kôyama directed 'Hachikô monogatari' in 1987, and while I haven't had the chance to seek out that film, I'm more than certain it will be the same kind of heart-string-puller that this remake of sorts proves to be. Even 'Futurama' briefly hit on the story of Hachi, to show years passing. And while the tale has been transplanted from Japan to the American Northeast, the basics of the story remain in place.
The acting in the film is secondary, and honestly, damn near any actor could fill in the roles in this piece, so the fact that an assortment of recognizable faces is involved is commendable. What's curious, though, is the fact that, despite a solid enough story and arc, and said acting presence, the film was never truly released in America, with only a few festival showings and screenings. But this is not your ordinary DTV feature, not by any means, and it wasn't relegated or dumped to home video as some last ditch.
The human elements in this film are fine and dandy, but no one cares about that. What matters is the central character, the pup with the heart of gold; the people whose lives he touched, if only as inspiration, are secondary. Hachi the puppy may warm hearts with his youthful exuberance, but it's Hachi the full grown Akita that does the damage. The dogs who play the title character often steal the show, as the animal acting is beyond perfect. The adult Akitas are amazingly expressive, reactive, and at times, humorous: The scene concerning digging under the fence is too damn cute, and perfectly filmed, as we see Hachi from above, on both sides of the fence, struggling to get his bulk through the undersized hole he just dug. It's adorable as hell the faces he makes. The way Hachi is handled as the film goes on is graceful and heartbreaking at the same time, as these same dogs are aged through makeup, weights on their ears, and slower walking, to emulate a rundown state, as they drag along the routine of waiting. Just watching the dog struggle in these manners is utterly devastating to watch, as this pure character approaches the day he'll be reunited with his master.
Still, as touching and heartbreaking as the film is, I can't help but feel it's also incredibly manipulative in the way it handles the material, as well as the liberties it takes with the story in order to make it far more emotional in the climax. The real Hachiko got adopted, but would escape so he could wait for his master, on a regular basis. Here, he's a transient, living off the charity of those he inspires, sleeping under (wait for it...) an inactive train car. It's just too hit-you-over-the-head obvious and blunt. At the same time, as the end nears, a familiar face reappears, and a connection is reforged, if only briefly, and it is slightly too much. The story doesn't need the additional gut punches to be effective. We, the audience, don't need to have our heartstrings tugged even more, by being reminded of losing our own beloved pets, in the manner done here.
I'm not a fan of emotional blackmail, and at times, that's what 'Hachi: A Dog's Tale' feels like. The film doesn't want to inspire as much as it wants to utterly wreck its audience, and in that sense, it loses any respect earned from this reviewer. While a huge lump may grow in your throat, and tears and wails may ensue while watching the film, 'Hachi' should have been more than just a forced emotional trainwreck, in what was immediately labeled in this household by another viewer as "the saddest movie I've ever seen." There's more to a movie than forcing an emotion out of an audience, and the film never realizes this. 'Hachi' could have been inspirational. Not even showing the real statue constructed in tribute to the Hachiko could touch one the way it should, after the abuse suffered by the audience for too long a period beforehand.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Hachi: A Dog's Tale' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Home Pictures Entertainment in an unusual fashion. There have been barebones releases put out on BD50 Dual Layer Discs in recent memory, yet 'Hachi' gets a BD25 Single Layer disc (housed in a standard clasp case with no slipcover or packaging gimmick). Additionally, the release is Region A locked, rather than Region Free/ABC/All, an irregularity for Sony releases. There are a few pre-menu trailers (that are also in the Previews section of the menu, defeating their purpose before the menu entirely).
'Hachi' comes to Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film isn't exactly your stereotypical Blu-ray fodder, but the result here is solid.
The picture has nice depth, a very soft grain level, an equally soft three dimensional aspect, and plenty of strong colors off and on. Detail is sporadic, as surroundings are often rich in their definition, but there are too many softer shots, or moments where clarity just isn't there. In particular, the shots of Gere's face rarely show any character. Normally, in films like this, a character who may age dramatically through makeup effects will lack true depth in their appearance, but it's not like Gere's role here is to age....above ground, that is. Shadow detail is a hair below average, as there is the occasional crush, with night shots looking too troubling to ignore. Skin tones mostly run accurate, save for a few moments when they run far, far too warm. Edges are ideal. The real kicker is the aliasing, with fine edges sometimes going jagged, as well as clothing details, and, most noticeably, the bars in dog crates shifting and doing that ugly aliasing samba.
While not perfect by any means, 'Hachi' provides a very solid effort. Most viewers won't notice anyways, as they'll be too teared up to notice any video anomalies.
The sole audio option for 'Hachi' is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with English and English SDH subtitles. I will admit I find it odd that a story adapted from a Japanese true story doesn't get a single Japanese option, considering Japan is Region A, and considering the Japanese in this country who may want this release, but I guess Sony didn't feel the same way I did.
The dialogue for the film is all clean and free from feedback, but there are a few moments where the piano score can overpower it. Movement is light, mostly found as trains pass through the room on a few occasions. Rears don't get much activity whatsoever, as there is some very discrete ambience (with appropriate volume) from time to time, as well as a full score bleed. There is no real bass to speak of, and honestly, no high range either. I doubt the film really had either, considering it is a family-based tearjerker of a movie. This track feels authentic to the material, and in that sense it does a fine job, but the self-imposed limitations do stunt whatever score this track could earn.
Again, most viewers may not notice some of the shortcomings over the sounds of sobbing in their households.
Today, a new phrase or two shall be coined, for use forever after: I'd like to call them "petsploitation" and "dogsploitation" cinema. 'Hachi: A Dog's Tale' is both, a film so heavy handed and cruel in the way it attacks one's emotions that it can hardly invoke repeat viewings, or even the desire for such. The tale is legendary, though this iteration does take a few narrative liberties that I felt hurt the overall story. This Blu-ray has good video, limited audio, and a pittance of extras. I cannot recommend one blind buy this film, as it may not find its way back in the player all that often. It's sure to break the hearts of children and animal lovers alike, but unless one wants to continually get all soggy eyed, I'd say this is best kept as a rental.