Even before the blockbuster, multimedia Marley and Me phenomenon made the yellow Labrador Retriever synonymous with raucously naughty mischief, a quiet little Japanese story revealed — in typically quiet, Japanese fashion — that this charming, irrepressible breed also possesses a noble, stoic side. Now that understated story is the subject of director Yoichi Sai’s film Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog.
Based on the novel Modoken Quill No Issho by Riyohei Akimoto, the movie has shades of the Hachi legend — and it’s a touching tribute to the dignity and dedication of a dog who is called upon to serve as the eyes for a blind person.
Now, fully eight years after it was made, Quill is seeing limited release in New York City and Chicago, starting today: Friday, May 18. If you’re in or near those two cities, this is an event you definitely won’t want to miss. Also, the film will be available on Amazon on July 10.
The movie takes a respectful, documentary-style approach to the story of a guide dog, following him from puppyhood (ironically, when we first see baby Quill, his eyes are still screwed tightly shut) through his first year of foster care with a kind couple of volunteer “puppy walkers.” These charming early scenes play like a live-action version of Cute Overload, Japanese edition, complete with extremely kawaii shots of adorable pups against a background of cherry blossoms, or trotting around getting tightly tangled in toilet tissue.
Things get more serious as the audience sees some of the complicated training that goes into preparing a guide dog for duty. Finally, we see the adult Quill, all grown up into a fine specimen of a working canine, paired with cranky Mr. Watanabe. For added dramatic effect, Watanabe is a professional advocate for the disabled who sniffs at the very idea of a smelly “mutt,” insisting that he much prefers getting around with his trusty walking stick. Naturally, Quill and his handler win over Watanabe, and the blind man and his eyes-on-four-legs become fast friends.
Quill is a tribute to all dogs, whether or not they’re expected to make great sacrifices for us mere humans. One of the virtues that sets Quill apart — besides the unusual mark on his flank — is his astonishing ability to lie there and wait patiently whenever asked. In the end, all dogs wait: for us to come home, to make time for them, to recognize the profound gift of their compassion and care … before it’s too late.
This movie is mostly subtitled, but fear not if you find foreign flicks a turnoff: The exchanges between people and dogs, i.e., the training commands, are in English. “Japanese is too confusing,” the head dog trainer explains. But in the case of this film, it’s not confusing at all.