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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.

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