Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yoichi Sai
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Now Yoichi Sai directs a dog movie for kids? This is the guy who made “Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru (All Under the Moon),” a picaresque black comedy about a sarEdonic Korean cabby that swept local awards in 1993. Who followed with movies about the lives and loves of a family of hustlers (“Heisei Musekinin Ikka Tokyo Deluxe”), the search for a serial killer (“Marks no Yama”), and the daily round of cons in prison (“Keimusho no Naka”). Sai filmed these and other excursions into the underside of society with a wry wit and sharp eye for realistic detail.

So is he going soft? Selling out? Or, as he wrote in a program note, was he genuEinely intrigued when a producer told him he would like to see “a Yoichi Sai Disney movie?” Yes, and I would like to see Beat Takeshi, who often plays stone-cold killers, teach a kindergarten class. Who does Sai think he’s kidding?

But “Quill,” which is based on the true story of an exceptional Seeing Eye dog, is not Sai’s idea of a joke, sick or otherwise. Instead it is a movie that, as he also wrote, “the whole family can enjoy.” And not his “Tokyo Deluxe” family of crooks either.

Is it another heart-warming, tear-jerkEing flick about cute fur-balls? Again, no. Sai may want you to grab your hankie, but he remains true to his own “tell it like it is” creed. The title dog remains dogElike, with no assists from the CG staff (though someone markered the black patch of fur that looks like a bird feather Eand gave him his name).

Also, to play the humans around Quill, Sai cast some of the best actors in Japan, including Teruyuki Kagawa, star of the 2000 Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Devils on the Doorstep,” and Shinobu Terajima, who won a caseful of awards for her perEformances last year in “Vibrator” and “Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui.”

Finally, working with cameraman JuniEchi Fujisawa, Sai extracted a perforEmance from his canine star, a real-life guide dog, that looks like, well, a perforEmance, and not just the usual collection of soulful stares and meaningful barks.

The story is a straightforward retellEing of one dog’s life Eand the humans he meets along the way. It begins in Tokyo with the birth of five Labrador retriever puppies. The owner (Yuko Natori) gives one of them Ea slowpoke with an unusuEal mark on his side Eto be trained as a Seeing Eye dog like his father. The pupEpy is taken to the Kyoto home of Isamu (Teruyuki Kagawa) and Mitsuko Nii (Shinobu Terajima), who have volunEteered to be “puppy walkers” Eraisers of future Seeing Eye dogs to the age of one. Here the movie gets cute, as Quill romps with a stop-motion-animated tedEdy bear and has other photogenic fun.

When he has grown to adulthood, SatoEru Tawada (Kippei Shiina), a friendly-if-firm trainer, takes Quill to a Seeing Eye dog school. Though slower on the uptake than other dogs, Quill has an unusual emEpathy and patience with his charges Ehe doesn’t just them lead about, but seems to commune with them. Tawada decides that he would be perfect for MitEsuru Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), a crabby, lonely middle-aged man who claims he “would rather sleep than be dragged around by a dog.”

From here the story, as narrated by Watanabe’s teenage daughter Mitsuko (Yukika Sakuratani), becomes one of his rehabilitation. With Quill’s help, WatanaEbe ventures out into the world Eand comes to trust not only the animal at his side, but other human beings. Young son Etsuo (Yawara Matsuda) becomes jealEous. “Dad loves that dog more than he does us,” he tells Mitsuko.

Happy ending? Best not to say, though Quill remains a prince of a dog to the credEit crawl. No irritating yaps or menacing snarls Ejust a selfless devotion that makes much of humanity look beastly.

“Quill” would probably never occur to Hollywood, which turns its animal stars into either goofy cartoons or superpowEered saints. Watching it, kids can actualEly learn something about the training and work of Seeing Eye dogs. At the same time, Sai keeps the sugar content tolerably low for the adults who accomEpany them. Cute puppy fans may erupt into squeals of “kawaii” at certain moEments, but they are mercifully brief.

Though no lover of animal films (my kids must have been the last in their class to see “Beethoven”), I found myself warming to Quill. He more than earns his dog food, and his movie. But I hope Sai finds a less worthy subject for his next outing Ea talent for black comedy is a terrible thing to waste.

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