When geology, geography, and climate conspire against a human + canine family, splitting them apart, the resilience of the canines and the determination of the humans ensures that they're all best equipped in their psyches to deal with the devastation wrought by an almighty earthquake.
A "fictional film based on reality", arising from the magnitude 6.9 Chūetsu Earthquake of 2004, 'Mari to koinu no monogatari' ('A Tale of Mari and Three Puppies') is a heartwarming tearjerker of a family film, and a fantastic fable of the mutual benefits brought by the interpersonal bonds of mutual love, compassion and trust which humans and canines can share. The most fictional additions are siblings Aya (Mao Sasaki) and Ryota Ishikawa (Ryohei Hirota), who anchor the emotional heart of the tale, and who have a thing or two to teach the grown-ups about extending our familial circle of compassion beyond our own species.
Set among the beautiful rice paddy terraced hillsides around Yamakoshi Village, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, at first the children's lives appear to be a paragon of the rural idyll – yet their widower father Yuichi Ishikawa (Eiichiro Funakoshi) is planning on moving his family to the city of Nagaoka. As her fifth birthday approaches, Aya and Ryota stumble upon an abandoned puppy on the edge of Moon Field. For Aya and the puppy alike, it seems like love at first sight, for the youngster attempts to follow the children home. However, they know well of their father's dislike of dogs, so while sneaking food out to the puppy (who she names Mari), and playing joyfully with her in Moon Field, Aya cleverly recruits some assistance from her grandfather (Yoshikazu Ebisu) in adopting Mari into the Ishikawa family.
Yuichi's resistance crumbles in light of the joy and comfort Mari so obviously brings to Aya, who is still recovering from the untimely death of her mother. A year later, Mari is all grown up, and a mother herself to three adorable fluffball puppies of her own, who Aya names Goo, Choki, and Paw. Yet such joy as the puppies bring to the human members of their family is shockingly cut short when the whole district is devastated by a massive earthquake. The younger menfolk survive unharmed at work and school, but Yuichi and Ryota are powerless to help Aya and her grandfather, immobilised as they are in the ruins of their collapsed home.
However, Mari is initially unharmed too, and in her dogged determination to secure safety for her pack members, she slips her leash, tucks her puppies out of harm's way, and sets about rescuing Aya and her grandfather. Realising that she cannot dig them out without help (but not for want of trying), Mari runs off to recruit a pair of Japan Self-Defence Force troops, and leads them back to the ruins of her home. As a Chinook helicopter winches up first the injured old man, then Aya, she begs her rescuer to also take Mari and her three pups – but the time-critical nature of the medevac mission leads to the dogs being abandoned in a deserted village ruin.
Some have argued that director Ryûichi Inomata spends too little time on the lengths to which Mari goes to weather this storm of misfortune, and while we do get to enjoy some of her intelligently resourceful canine resilience, Aya's determined efforts to be reunited take precedence. She first inspires her brother to volunteer to journey on foot from their evacuation centre to recover their doggy siblings, then persuades him to let her come too. However, a heavy thunderstorm further destabilises the dangerously weakened hilly terrain, and eventually Yuichi rescues them from their bold but failing mission of mercy.
Two weeks later, after the aftershocks have subsided, the JSDF Chinook is tasked with taking one member per family back to Yamakoshi Village, for a brief two hour sortie into the wreckage of their home hamlet. The whole community is so touched by the compassionate efforts of the Ishikawa siblings to be reunited with Mari, Goo, Choki, and Paw, that they ensure Yuichi, Aya and Ryota all get a seat on the helicopter. But have their canine loved ones survived, and if so will they manage to find them in time?
Thanks to our shared evolutionary history, maintaining a mental map of our accustomed territory allows both people and dogs to act with intelligent consideration in dire circumstances, and thereby maximise our chances of survival. Factor in a cross-species theory of mind (eg: which route would they have taken? where will they come looking for me?) and our common mammalian smarts give us a head start in life-or-death critical decision-making. In portraying this insight and more, this glorious story shows both how much we have in common with our companion animals, and also how much richer our lives can be when we embrace building bonds of mutual love, compassion and trust beyond our own species.
Best to have copious supplies of tissues to hand, because tears of sorrow and joy are very likely indeed. A universal narrative of the compassionate resilience of the human and canine spirit in the face of natural disaster, this film richly rewards being enjoyed by folk of all ages, and deserves to be seen in every quarter of our global village. Make sure you stick around for the closing credits, too – to drink in photos of the lovely Yamakoshi countryside, her native villagers, and the real life 'Mari and Three Puppies'.
You can read about the true story of Mari's post-earthquake deeds, which inspired this fictionalisation, and of her home village's "Fireworks for Mari" celebration, in 'The Inspiring Story of Mari and Her Puppies', by the Japan News Group (originally in Japanese) – for text and photos, search on "The Inspiring Story of Mari and Her Puppies".