Hachiko the Dog: Please Help Us To Entangle Cultural Appropriation in American Films

By Special Correspondent Thea Lim

hachi

A few days ago reader Elton Joe sent us an irritated email with a newsflash that Hollywood and Richard Gere have remade Hachiko, a 1987 Japanese film about a real-life dog beloved in Japanese culture.

A little about this celebrity dog:

In 1924, Hachikō was brought to Tokyo by his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo. During his owner’s life Hachikō saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno didn’t return on the usual train one evening. The professor had suffered a stroke at the university that day. He died and never returned to the train station where his friend was waiting.

Hachikō was given away after his master’s death, but he routinely escaped…he went to look for his master at the train station where he had accompanied him so many times before. Each day, Hachikō waited for Professor Ueno to return…

The permanent fixture at the train station that was Hachikō attracted the attention of other commuters…[one of] Professor Ueno’s former student[s] returned frequently to visit the dog and over the years published several articles about Hachikō’s remarkable loyalty. In 1932 one of these articles, published in Tokyo’s largest newspaper, threw the dog into the national spotlight. Hachikō became a national sensation. His faithfulness to his master’s memory impressed the people of Japan as a spirit of family loyalty all should strive to achieve…

Eventually, Hachiko’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty…In April 1934, a bronze statue in his likeness was erected at Shibuya Station…Each year on April 8[6], Hachikō’s devotion is honored with a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Tokyo’s Shibuya railroad station. Hundreds of dog lovers often turn out to honor his memory and loyalty.

In other words, Hachiko is an important cultural symbol in Japan. Hence Elton Joe’s irritation at Hollywood’s dognapping: from the credits we can see that nary a Japanese person has a starring role, plus the story has been relocated to Rhode Island. How can the American version possibly express the cultural importance little Hachi has? And, if it cannot express that cultural importance, is the film simply mining a revered Japanese legend for entertainment dollars?

And let’s not forget about you, Richard Gere. This is the second time Ricky has starred in an American remake of a Japanese film: in 2004 with the help of J-Lo and Susan Sarandon, Gere remade the thoughtful and moving 1996 film Shall We Dance? into a shlockfest. (Well, that’s just my opinion of course.)

However. Maybe we need to hold our horses here before we scream appropriation. Remaking films from other countries is a pretty common practice in the movie industry, and goes both ways. Bollywood is rife with Hindi remakes of American films. And often non-American directors happily go along with American remakes: movies like The Departed and Vanilla Sky brought in oodles of dollars in rentals and DVD sales for Infernal Affairs and Open Your Eyes.

And while the American Shall We Dance? definitely lost the delicacy and sweetness of the original in its translation, I can’t really say anything about it struck me as racist. And here’s another question: if America remakes a film from another country, is it important to have nationals (or simply Americans with ethnic ties to that country) working on the film?

Take a look at the horribly failed American remake of Thai film Bangkok Dangerous. The directors chose to completely rearrange the storyline in order to accomodate Nicolas Cage. Was that American-centric? Yes! Clumsy? Yes! Did it destroy the original film? Yes! Was it racist? Aha. Here’s your catch: it was the Pang Brothers – the Thai version’s original directors – themselves who directed the American version and did the script mutilating.

So cultural appropriation in the context of movie remakes is murky. But ponder this. One thing differentiates Hachi from Shall We Dance, Infernal Affairs, Open Your Eyes or many other non-American films that have been Hollywoodized: usually, they are not about a cultural hero who has great significance to their countries of origin – a significance that may or may not be properly handled by Hollywood’s hammy paws.

The blog Tartar Sauce
feels the same way as Elton Joe:

Hachiko is obviously an important symbol in Japan. And his story is being turned into an American movie that takes the story completely out of context. While there is Japanese writing on this poster, that’s because this is a poster for the Japanese release of it, not because the movie mentions Japan at all. It’s set in Rhode Island, and stars Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and Jason Alexander. All white actors. In Japan, the story of Hachiko is one about loyalty, and it’s a story that has great cultural significance. From the looks of this poster, the movie will be much more sappy, and from everything I’ve heard about it, all of the its cultural significance will be stripped away. This is a Japanese story. It’s being sold in America as an American one. And there aren’t even any Asian lead actors. This is based on a story about Asian people, and none are present. The only remotely Japanese character is the dog, who happens to be an Akita, and has a Japanese name. Everything else is changed, and Asian countries, Asian cultures, and Asian people are still being ignored.

So is Hachiko starring Richard Gere a racist remake?

Before you answer, consider this. In writing this post I did a little sneaking around messageboards, and from that very poor sample, I found multiple Japanese people who expressed excitement about the American remake. I didn’t find a single Japanese person who raised objection.

I do not speak Japanese and like I said, it’s a poor sample of what folks are really thinking. But notice the poster on this here post is from Japan. All the posters and promotion that I found for the American film are in Japanese; it seems like the big advertising push for this film is starting in Japan long before it starts here. The film clearly is anticipating a huge audience in Japan.

If many Japanese people have no problem with a Hachi remake, do we as Americans have reason to cry foul on their behalf?