Animal movies are a thriving genre of Japanese films that foreign critics, scholars and viewers by and large cordially detest. It’s similar to the typical gaijin reaction to natto (fermented soy beans) — i.e., disgust at a humble, but beloved, made-in-Japan specialty.
The sight of a dog, cat or other furry beast on a film flyer here triggers an instant rejection reaction. It’s usually a guarantee of badness on every level, from hammy J-drama performances to twee scenes of animal antics. The exceptions, such as Yoichi Sai’s 2004 “Quill,” a relatively realistic and unsentimental look at the life of a seeing-eye dog, hardly disprove the rule.
Yoshinori Kobayashi’s “Kinako — Minarai Keisatsuken no Monogatari” (“Kinako — The Story of an Apprentice Police Dog) is another film about a canine professional — an aspiring police dog — also based on a true story, but another “Quill” it is not. Instead, it recycles cliche after cornball cliche from local “guts-to-glory” films, while inflicting shot after shamelessly adorable shot of its title pooch and teen trainer (Kaho), who is the human equivalent to a bumbling, lovable puppy.
That said, “Kinako” is an interesting example of what the local industry considers suitable multiplex entertainment for families — a prime audience at this time of year. In contrast to Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji and other Hollywood paragons of canine competence and virtue, Kinako, the film’s Golden Labrador heroine, becomes popular with the good citizens of her native Kagawa Prefecture for being a cute screwup.
Is this, I wondered, the message parents want to give their kids — that the winsome, dumbbell loser is to be preferred over the smart, disciplined winner? How can Japan survive in a competitive world with that attitude? That, of course, was before the third act denouncement, which I should have seen coming a mile away.
Kinako’s trainer is Kyoko — nicknamed Anko (The first kanji of Kyoko can also be read as “an,” with anko meaning “bean paste jam”) by her quick-tempered boss Banba (Yasufumi Terawaki), his sweet-tempered wife (Naho Toda) and their two kids. Her late father (Kenichi Endo) also trained police dogs and, eager to follow in his footsteps, she applied for an apprenticeship with Banba, one of her dad’s kohai (juniors).
Soon after arriving at the training center, whose entire staff is Banba and one hardworking apprentice, Susumu (Yusuke Yamamoto), she falls in love with Kinako, a sickly puppy, and decides to train him herself. Her boss is skeptical — police dogs, he knows, have to be made of stern stuff, but agrees to let her try.
Anko works at endless chores, while diligently picking up training tips from Susumu (the cranky Banba teaches her zip) and tirelessly practicing them with Kinako.
Two years pass — but Kinako, now a full-grown dog, has made little progress. Then Susumu reluctantly leaves the training center to take over the family noodle shop. Referring to the detailed training notebooks he left behind, Anko tackles Kinako’s education with a new spirit, but when she and Kinako enter a police-dog competition, they end up not as winners but laughing stocks. A news segment about their disastrous performance becomes a prefecture-wide hit, however, and Kinako becomes the local equivalent of an online dancing hamster, loved by all. But can she ever be a real police dog?
There is more, much more, as poor hapless Kinako fails test after test. TV veteran Kobayashi, whose first feature was the 2007 thriller “Unfair the Movie,” hits the same notes — Anko’s frustration, Banba’s volcanic rage, Kinako’s sweet indifference to the human drama swirling around her — over and over, like little trip hammers to the skull. If this were a reality show, I thought, dog and trainer would have been eliminated in episode two.
Kaho, who built a thriving career in TV dramas, commercials and films (“Tennen Kokekko,” “Utatama”) while still in her teens, does her by-now patented turn as a wide-eyed, pure- hearted innocent, though she is now a bit old — she turns 20 next June — to pull it off. The rest of the cast also plays to type. The best actor in the film, in fact, is the dog, who charms without trying, but grows the most as a character. If all you’re looking for is stress relief with funny animal tricks, though, save time and try YouTube.