Look, puppies are cute. This is not a unique opinion--entire corners of the Internet are devoted to the notion, and profitably--but it goes a long way towards explaining why Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog, a Japanese family film that's nearly a decade old, made its way to our shores earlier this year. Simply put, it features a lot of footage of cute puppies, and (later) of a rather amazing Golden Lab guide dog. You don't see a lot of live action foreign family films making their way here, presumably because a young audience can't read a lot of subtitles. But then again, cute dogs can trump those concerns.
Based on the novel The Life of Quill, The Seeing-Eye Dog, the film introduces us to Quill as an adorable puppy, one of a litter whose owner badly wants to be guide dogs. "Their mom is too ordinary," the trainer tells her. "The qualities we're looking for are hereditary." But he eventually gives in, telling her he'll take one, and there's a great scene where, following his instructions, she determines the most likely candidate by calling all of the little puppies, and then seeing which one doesn't come eagerly, but instead hangs back and contemplates.
That's Quill, who is given that name by Isamu (Teruyuki Kagawa) and Mitsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a kind couple who serve as foster owners to potential guide dogs for the first year of their lives. He's given the name for the little birthmark near his belly--a mark which is also quite helpful in picking him out of the groups of dogs he shares some scenes with. When that year ends, Quill is taken off to a training facility, where chief trainer Satoru (Kippei Shiina) decides he'd be a perfect fit for Mr. Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), a grouchy activist and writer. "I'd rather stay home than be pulled around by a mutt!" he insists, but if you've seen a movie or two, it won't come as a surprise to learn that he not only accepts the dog, but grows to love him.
Director Yoichi Sai adopts a naturalistic, almost documentary approach in telling the story, and it works, though the film itself is full of strange (possibly cultural?) storytelling idiosyncrasies; I'm not sure, to pick the most obvious example, why Mr. Watanabe's displeasure at having to walk the dog needed to be illustrated by a full example of Quill doing his "business." That's an odd scene; so is the very goofy doggy dream sequence. Both could have been easily trimmed to shorten the 100-minute running time, which is just too long for a family movie; even this grown audience member grew restless in the second half, particularly during the unfortunate dips into domestic drama. And mention must be made of the truly terrible score, too cutesy by a half and apparently performed by a circus band.
But the footage of Quill (which is, let's face it, why we're here) is often extraordinary. Simply put, I do not know how they got some of this stuff--and not just the thing with the crossed eyes, but the powerful images of the ever-faithful Quill at Mr. Watanabe's side as he works, as he rests, and as he is sick. Several scenes powerfully illustrate the oft-discussed Kuleshov Effect, where we can see and emotionally digest things in what's on-screen merely by suggestion; when a narrator tell us that Quill looks at his foster parents with "sad eyes," I'll be damned if those eyes don't look sad, and when he is placed at a casket, we read sorrow in his expression. It's not just that he's a good "dog actor" (if such a thing is possible); it's that director Sai has shot and assembled the picture skillfully, and creates several beautiful moments between Quill and the humans around him. Those moments may be manipulative, but they're effective all the same.
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image sports some soft shots here and there, but for the majority of the presentation, it's clean, pleasing and attractive--good saturation, clean contrast, detailed close-ups. The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is mostly front, center, and clear, with infrequent but effective surround engagement for effects (like the rumbling of the jet engines that take Quill to his foster parents) and city street soundscapes.
A 2.0 stereo track is also available, as well as default English subtitles.
Only a Trailer (1:55), unfortunate for one of the few recent films where this viewer was genuinely curious about production details. (How many dogs? How much CG assistance? How much was scripted? Etc.)
Fair warning: the subtitle of the picture is accurate, and it concerns the full life of its subject (through the end), so it comes to unsurprisingly tear-jerking conclusion. Yes, it got to me a little, as I'm sure it will to most pet owners. Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog is occasionally off-key and altogether too long, and its target audience is hard to pin down. But it has some moving moments and impressive filmmaking, and, yes, a lot of cute dogs.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.