Director Yoichi Sai knows what the audience wants, given that there’s nothing ambiguous about the title. The film begins when a yellow Labrador retriever named Quill is a pudgy puppy stumbling over steps and unraveling toilet paper, and follows him when he’s grown into a patient and observant seeing-eye dog. If you’ve seen the film’s poster of the sleeping pup, mostly likely the film has already won you over with its “aah” appeal.
Sai delivers a sentimental tale for dog lovers, grounded by the man-and-his-dog bond that has made the novels Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller perennially popular. Don’t worry, there isn’t a tragic deus ex machina here. Still, if you want a good cry in the dark, this will fit the bill.
Quill was born with a birthmark on his belly that looks like bird wings in flight, hence his name (and a very convenient way to tell him apart when other dogs scamper on screen). Just a few months old, he’s adopted by foster parents who teach him to love and trust humans. A year later, he’s flown cross-country to begin his training as a guide dog. But his education is a two way-street. His blind irascible partner, Mitsuru Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), has to be first convinced that the dog will make walking on the city streets faster and safer, and then learn to pay attention to the Quill’s body language and whimperings—he’s even more prone to distraction than the canine.
Crucially to the film’s success, you feel the moment when the sullen Watanabe falls in love. After he has initially failed his training, he sits across a room from those who have passed. Dejected, he slouches, hands in his lap, when Quill begins licking his hands, and for the first time, Watanabe pets the dog, and not just as a reward. Quill then lies down completely sprawled on the floor and on top of his owner’s feet.
The film’s sweet, but not saccharine. Only occasionally is a scene filmed from Quill’s point of view, and fortunately there is only one opportunity for Watanabe’s son to dress up his new four-legged friend. Quill more than compensates for those disappointed by the scant screen time of the pooch in Darling Companion, and if you can spend hours watching animal videos on YouTube, this film is nirvana.