Move over, Hachiko. Japan’s most famous exemplar of canine devotion faces some stiff competition from the titular dog in Hitoshi Yazaki’s “Sakura.” Even when everything threatens to fall apart for the family at the center of this tale, their faithful hound finds a way to bring them back together.

The film itself could have done with such a reliable anchor. It’s a fascinating mess, with wild mood swings and a story that takes forever to get to the point, though it’s made watchable by some committed performances from the actors and a willingness to venture into the taboo.

At the film’s start, college student Kaoru Hasegawa (Takumi Kitamura) returns to his family home in Japan’s western Kansai region after a lengthy absence. He’s keen to see the family dog, Sakura — now rather creaky and flatulent — though less enthusiastic about reconnecting with his father Akio (Masatoshi Nagase), who walked out on them two years earlier but is back for new year celebrations.

Sakura (Sakura)
Run Time 119 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 13

Kaoru’s mother, Tsubomi (Shinobu Terajima), and younger sister, Miki (Nana Komatsu), try to keep the atmosphere cheerful, but there’s an empty place at the dining room table, belonging to eldest brother, Hajime (Ryo Yoshizawa). In flashbacks, Kaoru recalls his sibling as a star baseball player and family “hero,” yet his memories are fraught with a sense of foreboding.

The film isn’t in any hurry to reveal the nature of its tragedy, and the first hour maintains a generally upbeat feel, somewhere between a Yoji Yamada flick and an NHK morning drama. Memorable incidents from the children’s lives are fondly recalled, like leafing through the Hasegawa family photo album.

As they reach high school age, both Hajime and Kaoru get their first tastes of romance, though only one of them actually falls in love. Meanwhile, Miki becomes intimate with a female classmate (Yui Kobayashi), but her jealous reaction to Hajime’s girlfriend suggests that she may harbor something more than sisterly affection for him.

“Sakura” inherits its episodic structure from the hit Kanako Nishi novel on which it’s based. And it shares an affliction common to many literary adaptations in recent Japanese cinema: the sense that the book’s story has made it to the screen, while never really leaving the page.

Masa Asanishi’s screenplay tries to cram in far too much of the novel, meaning that it has to rush the crucial final act. Kaoru’s narrative voiceover is used so frequently that the film sometimes feels more like an audiobook with added visuals.

The performers manage to keep things interesting, especially Komatsu. As Miki, she shows a playful, capricious quality that slowly curdles into something more malevolent. There are a few scenes here that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s gothic melodramas.

Terajima is in top form as the family’s charismatic matriarch, tackling the Kansai dialect with evident relish. Nagase complements her energy with a nicely understated performance, and there’s a charming chemistry between the two.

This represents a comparatively mainstream outing for director Yazaki. No stranger to themes such as incest (“March Comes in Like a Lion”) and LGBTQ romance (“Afternoon Breezes”), he approaches the material with a commendable lack of histrionics, though he can’t quite bind it into a cohesive whole. “Sakura” is no dog’s dinner, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment.

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