Mild Spoilers Throughout
Shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective, anyone who has ever adopted a dog (or a cat, for that matter) into their family will likely respond to Quill (Kuiiru, 2004) with a cathartic release of emotion and tears. Based on a true story about a guide dog for the blind, the film is admirably unsentimental and straightforward but also directed with scads of heart-tugging shots that follow the title pooch from cradle-to-grave.
That basic concept is a good one. The film is essentially a doggie biography, following Quill as he's selected for a rigorous training program that recruits animals that are not only intelligent and pliable, but have a personality best suited to what amounts to a 24-7 job. Trainer Satoshi Tawada (Kippei Shiina) struggles with Quill, who has difficulty adjusting to the very particular demands of a guide dog and almost gets cut from the program. Then, when he's finally assigned a newly-blind master, Mitsuru Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), his new owner proves to be both obstinate and in poor health, so that he's not an ideal match for Quill, either.
In this sense Quill is realistic and believable. The beautiful Labrador is no Lassie; he makes mistakes not because he's stupid but because he's essentially a pretty ordinary dog with slightly above average intelligence. Nor is his blind owner a saint. Watanabe is difficult and anti-social, and much of his unhappiness is self-inflicted. The resolution of their relationship is no audience pleaser, but it's honest.
Indeed, Quill is the kind of movie that Japanese audiences adore and and which utterly terrify Hollywood studio executives, even though an American remake of Quill potentially could go through the roof box-office wise. The similarly unsentimental March of the Penguins may be a sign that Hollywood is beginning to wise up about the market for such pictures, but a key component of Quill's story - dogs eventually get old and get sick and die - would immediately scare off most industry green-lighters.
Many of Quill's good and bad points can be traced to director Yoichi Sai, an unlikely choice for this material. (His latest film, Blood and Bones, stars "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, and is as far removed from Quill as can be imagined.) A Japanese-Korean best known abroad for his semi-autobiographical All Under the Moon (Tsuki wa dotchi ni dete iru, 1993), Sai repeatedly opts for honest staging, though even he can't resist several moments of unapologetic cuteness, some of which incorporates distractingly clumsy CGI effects.
Mostly though, the film is an unpretentious account of one dog's life, with equal parts of earned sentiment, blatant but effective heart-tugging and semi-documentary business about the process of training guide dogs. The fascinating training sequences were especially interesting to Japanese audiences; for some reason, such programs are extremely rare and apparently relatively new in Japan, so the film tangentially succeeds in educating the public about the need for such programs. Soon after the film was released, little donation boxes supporting such blind-dog schools began appearing in restaurants and small shops all over the country.
Video & Audio
Quill was previously released in Japan as a two-disc NTSC Region 2 title that included optional English subtitles. That so-called "first release" edition was 16:9 enhanced, and included a picture booklet, a "making-of" documentary, a "day in the life of a guide dog trainer," trailers, and a "Quill photo session." This new Hong Kong "HK Limited Edition Set" seems to use an identical transfer, also 16:9 enhanced and which retains the original "VistaVision size" 1.85:1 screen format. The image is clean and clear, unlike many of Panorama's DVDs of Japanese movies, which are often ugly and non-anamorphic. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is fine, though this is hardly the film to show off your sound system. The film is presented in its original Japanese with English subtitles; an alternate Cantonese track (and Chinese subtitles) is available for those that want them.
Quill has a number of supplements, but unfortunately they're all in Chinese and most relate to the Chinese-dubbing of the film, which isn't going to excite native English-speakers. Also included are a couple of Japanese Theatrical Trailers, which are not subtitled but which give viewers a clear idea as to how the picture was marketed there.
Quill is rather odd in that it both rejects and embraces the kind of animal movies that were all the rage in Japan throughout the 1980s and '90s, when there were dozens of sickeningly syrupy movies about dogs, cats, elephants, and deer. The result is a picture that will have you reaching for the box of Kleenex, but you may feel guilty for having been duped once it's over.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.