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Nankyoku monogatari (Antarctica)

Posted by martinteller on July 7, 2015

Based on the true story of Akira Ushioda (Ken Takatura) and Kenjirô Ochi (Eiki Okada, Woman in the Dunes and Hiroshima mon amour).  Ushioda and Ochi are part of an Antarctic expedition, and they have a close bond with the team’s 15 sled dogs.  But extreme weather forces them to abandon the dogs, unable to even free them from the chain that ties them together.  While the two men wrestle with their guilt, the dogs wrestle with survival.

Director Koreyoshi Kurahara has a place in my Top 100 with his startling Thirst for Love (Okada, star of Woman in the Dunes, is also on my list).  While this film isn’t quite as good, it’s pretty riveting stuff.  The story unfolds slowly, taking its time to develop the connection between the humans and the canines.  It’s an hour into it (the running time is 2:23) before we get to the separation that forms the main drama.  But this is time well spent, familiarizing the audience not only with the characters (both two- and four-legged) but also showing how vital they are to each other.

Kurahara doesn’t try to humanize the dogs.  He doesn’t need to, their dogness is reason enough to empathize with them.  “All lives are equal”, Ushioda tells us… but it needn’t be said, because the movie treats them as equals, giving each species the same weight and sympathy.  This may be a spoiler, but I must tell you that not all the dogs make it.  If you’re not prepared to see dogs suffer and die (all simulated, of course, but effectively), don’t watch this movie.  It’s a gut-wrenching story… my gut actually wrenched, as tears came to my eyes.  It’s tough going… especially because the loss of my own dog last year still stings.

Obviously much of the movie is conjecture, but one senses that they recreated events as best they could.  Nothing feels sensationalized or sentimentalized (as I suspect things often are in Disney’s remake, Eight Below).  Like Watership Down, it has the thrill of adventure while acknowledging that adventure sometimes means death.  It’s a film that is touching in both its sorrow and its triumphs, canine and human alike.  The vast Antarctic scenery is beautifully captured by cinematographer Akira Shiizuka, and taken to surreal places like the inside of a whale’s carcass, or the dancing colored lights of the Aurora Australis.  And the movie may be best known for its soundtrack, with a lovely score by Vangelis.

Hard to watch, but powerfully moving.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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