Having grown up with a bunch of lovable yellow dogs, I am admittedly an easy mark for a movie like Quill: Life of a Guide Dog. In fact, had my brain been scanned by an MRI within the first few minutes of this film’s start, I’m sure it would have been flooded with oxytocin, the so-called “attachment” hormone. Gazing upon the title character’s scrunched newborn puppy face, hearing its tiny mewls and cries, I felt myself overtaken by an oxytocin tsunami.
During the opening sequence of Quill, director Yôichi Sai makes resistance futile for nearly everyone, I suspect, with shots of his litter of Labrador retriever pups at rest and at play. There they are lined up bum to bum, looking at cherry blossom trees! Here they are again, mischievously unraveling a roll of toilet paper until an entire floor is covered. Now they’re all piling atop their owner, Ms. Mito (Yuko Natori), for an afternoon siesta. Sure, these types of images have been used in countless commercials. Are they facile? Perhaps. Effective? Absolutely. And they contribute mightily to the “Awww!” factor in Quill, which seems at first to be a canine weepie of the highest order.
But then the movie, inspired by true events and made for German TV in 2004, gets down to business. When Quill is selected by Ms. Mito to become a guide dog and must leave his siblings to begin training, the tone of the film changes. Through voiceover narration, the viewer learns that this farewell marks “Quill’s first goodbye” (emphasis added). “Oh, no,” I thought, suddenly alarmed. And so underneath some joyful and informative scenes, the film warns us of the losses that may follow. For a jaunty family film with a series of adorable dogs at its center, Quill creates surprising suspense.
Most of this emerges in Quill’s experience. Before he can begin his formal training, he spends a year being fostered in the home of a lovely young couple (Teruyuki Kagawa and Shinobu Terajima), who affectionately observe his puppy shenanigans. Quill’s classes at the seeing-eye-dog training center and his placement afterward dominate much of the plot. Under the tutelage of his primary trainer, Satoshi (Kippei Shiina), he learns how to recognize curbs, corners, and traffic, as well as gentle ways of alerting his blind partners to dangers ahead. Although Sai takes his time to illustrate the rigorous training process in step-by-step fashion, it still seems like a miracle that a dog can: 1) be trained to navigate winding and bustling streets; and 2) be completely trusted to privilege his training over his own animal instincts. (With all due respect to feline lovers, I’m sorry, but your cat can’t do that.)
Quill’s eventual partner, Mitsuru Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), is a middle-aged man who lost his sight due to diabetes-related complications. He’s initially reluctant to work with a guide dog, being proud, obstinate, and loathe to follow rules. (A guide dog’s partner has his own set to follow in order to keep himself and his dog safe.) But Mr. Watanabe soon warms to Quill’s reassuring companionship and the newfound freedom that having the dog provides him. Before long, he is proudly showing off the dog at his workplace and enlisting Quill to help him track down a vending machine filled with beer on a warm night (a scene whose humor is too heavily marked by overbearing flute music).
When Quill must eventually retire from his duties as a guide dog, he returns to the home of his foster parents. By that point, not surrendering to Sai’s powers may be tough, especially if one is reminded of beloved pets. Though much of the movie is devoted to showing us how Quill ushers Mr. Watanabe through life, it achieves a a particular poignancy by also showing the devotion of people who usher creatures (human and otherwise) from their beginning moments to their final ones. Bring your tissues.