By J.K. Yamamoto
A true story that has been a legend in Japan for seven decades is being brought to American audiences in “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” which is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 9.
Hachiko, an Akita dog, belonged to Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at the University of Tokyo. From 1924 to 1925, Hachiko saw his master off at the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at nearby Shibuya Station. This daily routine came to an abrupt end with the professor died of a stroke at the university.
Even after being given to another family, the dog continued to wait for Ueno at the station each day. He became a familiar sight to commuters over the next 10 years, continuing his vigil until his own death in 1935.
Hachiko became a national hero and a symbol of loyalty. In 1934, a bronze likeness by sculptor Teru Ando was erected at Shibuya Station, with Hachiko himself present at the unveiling. During World War II , the statue was melted down for the war effort, but in 1948 a new statue by Takeshi Ando, son of the original artist, was dedicated.
Today it is a popular meeting spot in Tokyo.
The story was told in a 1987 hit movie, “Hachiko Monogatari,” starring Tatsuya Nakadai (known for such films as Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” and “Ran”).
Vicki Shigekuni Wong, co-producer of “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” first learned of Hachiko when she saw the statue during a visit to Japan over 20 years ago.
“Something about his demeanor really touched me deeply,” she recalled.
“Shortly after that trip, I was gifted with a Shiba that I promptly named Hachiko, and we were inseparable for 16 years. After Hachiko passed away, I felt a huge loss. He was my constant companion, and a great source of joy.
“Hachiko had this very calm, quiet dignity, and I still remember feeling so much awe and respect for the purity of his being. During one period I was spending much time in Europe, but I sometimes couldn’t wait to return home to his gentle presence.”
Around four years ago, Wong discussed her idea for a remake of “Hachiko Monogatari” with her friend Paul Mason, a noted producer who had just completed “The Amityville Horror.” Although he didn’t care much for dogs, “I explained how this was not simply a dog story but a story of universal devotion, and represented any deep bond between a man and woman, parent and child, individual and country, and cut across cultural, racial and sexual divides. I was very passionate about Hachiko’s story. Paul finally agreed to mentor me, and is the executive producer of ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.’
“It’s funny how everything fell in place. Paul wrote a popular book on producing in Hollywood, and he’s never seen a project come together so fast. During the many months while we worked on the script, I somehow found the time to buy a vacation home in the South Pacific. When the script was completed, I was finally able to enjoy the tranquility of my dream property overlooking the sea. Soon after I arrived, ‘Hachiko’ found financing, and then everything started happening very, very quickly.”
New Owner, New Setting
The main human character of the new film is Parker, a music professor who lives in a small New England town. Shigekuni Wong’s first and only choice for the role was Richard Gere (“Chicago,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”).
“I wanted Richard for his magnetic screen presence, long-standing interest in Asian culture — few people know he was in a Kurosawa film (“Rhapsody in August,” 1991) — and for the integrity and gravity required for the role of Parker,” she said.
“Richard’s long-time agent, Mr. Ed Limota, told him about our script, warning that his character dies halfway through the film, he was second to a dog, but that he should read it anyway. As Richard tells it, by the end of the story he was crying like a baby. He read it several times with the same effect, and knew he wanted to become involved. Not only did he accept the Parker role, but he became my co-producer.”
The director was Lasse Hallstrom, whose credits include “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” “Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules” and “Dear John.” He had worked with Gere on “The Hoax” (2006).
Joan Allen (“The Notebook,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) plays Parker’s wife, Cate, who is reluctant to take in the dog; Sarah Roemer (“Disturbia”) plays their daughter, Andy; Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”) plays Carl, the station manager.
In the film, Hachi is born in a Japanese monastery and sent to America. After being transferred from an airport to a train station, the dog breaks out of his cage and has a chance encounter with Parker.
It’s love at first sight.
“I saw Hachiko as being a sort of immigrant figure, lost and lonely in a foreign country, then warmly embraced by a typical small-town family,” Shigekuni Wong explained. “We initially envisioned the setting to take place in Japan, but our good friend, Mr. Sid Sheinberg, former president of Universal Pictures, suggested the location could be a similar train station setting in a small East Coast town. Why we didn’t think of it I’ll never know, but we loved the idea and even credited Sid at the end of the film.”
One thing that did not change, she stressed, was the breed of dog.
“Hachiko was a Japanese Akita and to honor him and his true story, we had to stay true to his lineage. There was never any question of the dog being anything but an Akita.”
One Japanese reviewer suggested the Japanese public would have been insulted if the new Hachiko were another kind of dog, like a dachshund.
The dog trainer was Boone Narrs, who has been training animals for Hollywood for over 30 years. Several dogs were needed to portray Hachi over a 10-year period.
“Based on our criteria, he found three adult Akitas named Forrest, Leyla and Chico to play the part of the adult Hachi,” said Shigekuni Wong. “They were show dogs from all around the country, and blood-related. We needed multiple adults due to the long working hours, and for scenes that required specific personalities. We called Leyla the ‘kissing dog’ due to her affectionate nature. Forrest was reserved and we used him in more serious scenes.
“We found that puppies grew very quickly, so we were constantly replacing them over the several-month shoot. Due to this size issue, we decided to use the smaller Shiba puppies instead of Akitas.”
She said of the animal actors, “Lasse was amazed at their uncanny ability to take instruction. Also, having all the dogs on the set fostered an unusually easy, warm atmosphere with all those cute puppies around.”
Mindful of what happened after such films as “101 Dalmatians” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” the American Kennel Club contacted Shigekuni Wong before filming started. “They were concerned that moviegoers would run out to get Akitas, then later abandon them at shelters,” she said. “As a result, the AKC invited me to one of their annual dog shows, and I was able to personally meet with many dedicated breeders. I shared how this film depicts life as seen through a dog’s eyes, and how I hoped it would provoke viewers to treat all animals in a more humane and respectful manner.
“I’m a strong believer that one must adopt animals with the same foresight and responsibility that goes into adopting a human child, and ownership should not be taken lightly.
“To protect against potential spontaneous adoptions, I worked closely with the AKC, Akita clubs and the American Humane Association to craft a disclaimer at the end of our film. We cautioned that Akitas were not for everyone, and perhaps more suited for experienced dog owners ...
“I’ve never had an Akita, but I have a friend who owned two Akitas at separate times. They each had aggression problems towards other animals as well as individuals outside his immediate family. Akitas are extremely intelligent, beautiful, loyal animals, and potential owners must be confident that they can handle these independent-thinking dogs.”
Precautions had to be taken to ensure that Gere would bond with his canine co-stars. “Richard was carefully introduced to each of the Hachi dogs. The trainer would have Richard enter into the room without speaking or touching. This went on several times, until the dog felt comfortable enough to be approached. Within a short time, Richard forged close relationships with all the dogs, and gained a true appreciation of each animal’s unique personality.”
Those efforts paid off. The film has gotten a “thumbs up” from Akita breeders across the country.
A Substantial Role
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Ken, Parker’s friend and colleague, who notices that the kanji on the dog’s tag is “hachi” (eight) and explains the unique qualities of Akitas. When Parker expresses frustration over Hachi’s refusal to fetch a ball, Ken tells him, “Akitas aren’t into people-pleasing.”
Later, after Parker’s death, Ken visits Hachi outside the station and talks to him in Japanese. The dog perks up and seems to recognize the language, having heard it as a pup.
Tagawa’s screen credits include “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” “The Last Emperor,” “Rising Sun,” “Picture Bride,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Planet of the Apes” (the remake) and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Among numerous TV roles, he was a regular on the San Francisco-based series “Nash Bridges.”
“Because of the lack of substantial roles for Japanese Americans and Asians in general, it was always my intention that Cary’s character be played by a Japanese American,” said Shigekuni Wong, a Los Angeles-born Sansei. “I wanted to create a strong and non-stereotypical role that would accurately show the real-life contributions and standings of Asians in today’s society ...
“I felt that Cary would be perfect due to his strong image, immense talent, and quiet strength. Because he usually plays tough guys, some felt he would not be suitable for this role. This only made it more compelling to me that this type of rigid casting be broken.
“Lasse Hallstrom had the final say, but I did share my belief that a Japanese American would be the most suitable for this Japanese-inspired film. As it turned out, Cary did a marvelous job of portraying the dignified, thoughtful scholar and everyone was quite pleased with his fine performance.”
Reaction in Japan
The film was released last year in Japan, where it was billed as “another ‘Hachiko Monogatari’ from across the sea.”
“Because Hachiko is such a beloved story in Japan, I felt a responsibility, a duty even, to make a film that would be embraced by the Japanese public,” Shigekuni Wong emphasized. “Shochiku, one of the oldest and largest film companies in Japan, had made a film about Hachiko almost 25 years ago and it went on to be a huge hit. We later learned that some of the old-timers at the company were hesitant about remaking one of their most popular films. When I learned that these same executives loved our American version, it was one of the high moments of my entire Hachiko experience.
“In the lobby after the Tokyo screening, there was a camera crew set up to do exit interviews and there must have been several hundred girls — not one boy — lined up, weeping into their tissues. When their turn came to talk about the film, they really started crying!
“The Shochiku executives were very pleased with this response, as it was quite a scene. Shochiku, who was also our Japanese distributor, said we really made their year.
“As a result of our success, Paul and I created Hachidog Productions.
We’re currently working on another Shochiku remake, and other animal, civil rights and family oriented themes. It’s been a supportive, rewarding relationship for everyone involved, and it all started with ‘Hachi.’ ”
She has many fond recollections of the opening in Tokyo. “It seemed very unreal seeing all these towering billboard images of Richard Gere gazing down affectionately at his devoted dog …
“Shibuya, site of Hachiko’s bronze statue, honored us with a ceremony and press event a few days before the premiere. Besides local dignitaries, we met Mr. (Takeshi) Ando, Hachiko’s sculptor, who is in his 90s, and he recalled meeting the real Hachiko as a small boy. The sculptor had attended a screening of the film and was particularly moved by the depth of emotions expressed in the dog’s eyes. I told Mr. Ando that Hachiko’s story survived all these years largely due to the appeal of his beautiful sculpture.
“As we stood next to the statue, Mr Ando pointed to the smooth surface at the top of Hachiko’s head. He explained this was from (countless people) petting Hachiko. Before we parted, Mr. Ando reached up and gave Hachiko’s head another pat.”
While her main goal was to promote compassion toward animals, Shigekuni Wong said, “as a third-generation Japanese American who was completely assimilated into American culture, as my interest in Hachiko increased, so did my interest in Japanese culture. Through sharing one of Japan’s most famous stories, I hoped to create a bridge between Japan and other countries by using Hachiko as a sort of Japanese goodwill ambassador to the world.
“My wish was that Hachiko’s story help spread positive feelings towards Japan, its people and culture through the universal affection between man and dog. But, I never imagined such a worldwide outpouring of affection for a Japanese dog who lived over 80 years ago.”
Travels With “Hachi”
Audience reaction around the world has backed up her belief in the universal nature of the story.
“When Richard and an Akita puppy walked down the red carpet at the Rome International Film Festival, the crowd went wild,” she said.
“Over 2,000 enthusiastic fans attended the screening, and the film placed No. 4 in overall box office during the run.
“The Brazilians also embraced the story. In Brazil, ‘Hachi’ opened on Christmas Day, and placed No. 2 after the James Cameron’s blockbuster hit ‘Avatar.’
“Since August, ‘Hachi’ has opened all around the globe to millions of people, and throughout the coming year, even more people will be affected by his steadfastness.
“Hachi” was the opening film at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, where Shigekuni Wong accepted the “Most Moving Picture” award and answered questions from the audience. “An usher said one woman was crying so hard that she dropped tissues all the way out the door,” she recounted. “It was very moving to touch so many hearts that night, especially when people came up to me and shared their personal dog moments and even took out pictures of their favorite canines.
These heartfelt moments really make the last four years seem all worthwhile to me.”
In Washington, D.C., Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki and his wife, Yoriko, hosted a screening and reception at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. Shigekuni Wong remembers one prominent fan in particular. “I met quite a few of the policy-makers on the Hill, and everyone couldn’t have been nicer. Lasse Hallstrom and I answered questions afterwards, and our biggest fan turned out to be the Honorable William Webster, head of the Homeland Security Advisory Board and former head of the FBI and CIA. He came up and told me all about his two dog children — no human ones — and shared his deep feelings for them. It was a touching moment as he was quite emotional.“
Shigekuni Wong observed that the movie “seems to have this magnetic, primitive impact on people, and most reduced to tears even by the middle of the film. It’s quite extraordinary. People say they’ve never seen such outpouring of feelings about a film — men and women alike.
The hardest hearts, people who don’t like dogs, real macho types — those who say they’ve never cried at a film — are affected the most.
“One stoic friend stated he didn’t like sentimental animal films. By the middle of the film, he whispered, ‘I’m actually starting to feel for this dog.’ By the finish, he was a mess. When the end credits start showing photos of the original Hachiko, his bronze statue at Shibuya Station, and the audience realizes that Hachiko is a true-life story, it just breaks viewers down even more.”
One surprise was that many non-Japanese are aware of Hachiko’s story.
“Dog breeders and enthusiasts in particular seem to know all about the loyal dog, and they share other ‘waiting dog’ stories from around the world. I’m sure there have been millions of animals who have displayed deep devotion to those they care about. Hachiko is really a symbol that represents all of these wonderful animals.”
Shigekuni Wong, who has been involved over the past 25 years in such endeavors as fashion design and merchandising, editing a women’s magazine, and co-owning one of the nation’s most successful ophthalmic surgery centers, is now committed to producing compassionate, life-affirming projects through Hachidog Productions.
The subject matter is by no means limited to animals. One project in development is an epic based on another real-life Japanese hero who has achieved iconic status: Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and is often referred to as the “Japanese Schindler.”
The DVD will be available around March 24 at the BCA Bookstore in Berkeley, or online dealers such as Amazon.