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Why do cat movies outnumber dog movies in Japan? For one thing, more cats than dogs are kept as pets here (9.64 million versus 8.49 million, according to a 2020 survey), and cat photos inundate social media.

Tetsuo Shinohara’s “Inubu: The Dog Club,” a broad-stroke cinematic love letter to canines everywhere, tries to hit the sweet spot between heartwarming entertainment and impassioned advocacy, though it’s not about to redress the cat-dog imbalance.

Drawing from a Yuka Katano novel based on true events, the film spotlights the horrible conditions at puppy mills and euthanasia at government-run animal shelters, while not framing the people who work at these places as villains. And though shouty and tearful in the well-trod ways of Japanese melodrama, “Inubu” tells home truths about the barriers its reforming protagonist and his allies face, their own physical and financial limits among them. Call it advocacy entertainment, with a clarion bark and realistic bite.

Inubu: The Dog Club (Inubu!)
Rating
Run Time 114 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

As it begins, Sota Hanai (Kento Hayashi) is a student at a veterinary school in Towada, Aomori Prefecture. A devoted dog lover, he has filled his tiny apartment with pups he has rescued, the newest addition being a shy stray he names Nico. She has escaped from the lab of Amuro (Ryo Iwamatsu), a professor who conducts experiments on live animals, a practice Sota abhors. When Amuro’s earnest assistant, Tomohiko Akita (Kodai Asaka), comes to claim Nico, Sota resists, but at the urging of his friends, relents. Given the professor’s power over his future, he has little choice.

Thankfully, this episode has a happy ending — and inspires Sota to start a “dog club” to find forever homes for abandoned dogs and cats (though the latter get relatively little screen time). Friends and fellow students, including perky cat-lover Yoshimi Sabigawa (Sakurako Ohara), idealistic best pal Ryosuke Shibasaki (Taishi Nakagawa) and even Tomohiko, who sympathizes with Sota’s cause, become charter members.

The film then flashes forward several years, after this quartet have embarked on their careers: Sota runs a small clinic in Aomori, where he performs free sterilizations on abandoned dogs and cats over the protests of his straight-shooting nurse (Tamae Ando), who fears he will burn out, go broke or both. Meanwhile, Yoshimi is a dedicated researcher in search of a cure for the deadly feline infectious peritonitis, Tomohiko serves uneasily under his all-business veterinarian father and Ryosuke works at a shelter where he gasses unwanted animals, a task that eats away at his sanity.

The focus of the episodic plot, however, becomes Sota’s struggle to rescue dogs from a filthy pet store whose brusque owner (Yukijiro Hotaru) has bred them in numbers larger than he can sell or care for. When he has Sota arrested for “stealing” the dogs, the news goes nationwide and dog club members reassemble for a rescue mission of a different kind.

Playing Sota, Hayashi is both a fiery activist (“I want to save them all” is his rallying cry) and a sensitive type capable of caring for other humans almost as much as his beloved pups. Too good to be true? Maybe, but with informed passion and welcome touches of humor (such as Sota’s craving for doggie treats), the film makes its case convincingly.

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