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Antarctic Echoes

Antarctic Film Month draws to a close a week later than expected due to a bout of ill-health, with the appropriately named Antarctica, based on a true story and taking us back to the year 1957.

Antarctica

(1983) Written by Tatsuo NogamiSusumu Saji , Toshirô Ishidô, & Koreyoshi Kurahara

Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara

Showa, established in January 1957 on East Ongul Island, was and continues to be one of Japan’s most active Antarctic stations. After construction was completed, 11 men and 15 sled dogs remained on site and Showa began its long life as a polar scientific outpost. In February of the following year, the team left the base having completed their tenure, and the dogs were left behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished until the relief crew arrived shortly afterward to take over their care. However, adverse weather conditions prevented the intended 2nd expedition team from making landfall, and the animals had to be abandoned. It would be a full year before another expedition team returned to Showa. Joining them was Professor Yasukazu Kitamura, responsible for the dogs in 1958 and whom had never forgiven himself for his decision to chain them together – a sentiment shared by the Japanese public of the day.

Early expeditions at Showa Station relied heavily on the use of sled dogs, leading to a deep bond between husky and handler.

The team would discover 7 dogs dead on the chain, with 6 having broken free and missing. Miraculously, brothers Taro and Jiro, who had been born and raised in Antarctica, had managed to survive. Kitamura suggested that they had subsisted on a diet of penguins, trapped fish, seal faeces, and seabirds. The dogs became national heroes and interest in the Sakhalin breed saw a major resurgence in Japan both in 1959 and again in 1983 with the release of Antarctica. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s epic dramatisation of these events combines both fact and fiction as it retells what is known as well as attempting to speculate on the fate of the huskies.

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Connections

Showa Station also appears in Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection, where scientist Yoshizumi and his colleagues first learn of the infection’s decimation of Japan and beyond. The feature was reviewed recently as part of Antarctic Film Month.

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In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama, one in which the canine performers could be said to have equal screen presence with their human counterparts. To an extent, any film that makes use of Antarctica in its storytelling cannot help but be dramatic. The severe, jagged white landscape of the continent is the very essence of spectacle, and, as demonstrated in The Thing – even though the sci-fi/horror was filmed entirely in North America – a place of great hazard.

“In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama.”

Forced to abandon the dogs to their fate, the expedition returns to a hostile reception, especially by the Japanese press.

All of this is encapsulated at the very beginning of Antarctica, from the montage of polar scenery accompanied by Vangelis’s dated but still powerful electronic score to the near-fatal expedition by Ushioda, Ochi and Ozaka, along with 15 sled dogs to remote inland post Botsnnuten. This sequence alone conveys the deep bond and interdependence between the dogs and their human masters, particularly the first two members of the team, responsible for the dogs’ wellbeing. Ushioda is the alter ego of Professor Kitamura in the film, and actor Ken Takakura expertly brings to life his Atlas-like sense of responsibility and later anguish at having chosen to chain the dogs together in the expectation that the 2nd expedition will ensure their care. With the expedition pilloried in the Japanese press for abandoning the dogs to their fate, both director Kurahara actors Takakura and Tsunehiko Watase as Ochi work hard to show that no-one was more haunted by that decision than the men themselves.

The film also suggests the wanderlust of the two dog lovers, the men finding themselves at a loss to reconnect to Japanese society upon their return. It is not only the dogs that they have left behind, but a major part of themselves and a sense of purpose as the pioneers of the new Antarctic base. Colorful and busy Hokkaido has carried on without them, its people only dimly aware of their experiences and unable to understand their feelings of disconnect. Indeed the only citizens who come close are the families who supplied the dogs, and bereft of their loved ones, have only recrimination to offer the polar scientists. The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world. This is made all the more powerful by the continual juxtaposition of these scenes with the ongoing fate of the dogs in the Antarctic: we cannot carry on without them because we alone know they are still there, and their fate has not yet played out.

With the humans gone from Showa, the dogs take centre-stage, and it is down to some serious animal training, special effects, and post-production that the Kurahara is able to sell his drama to the audience. A good measure of how successful this was is the fact that the director was criticised at the time for animal cruelty, gaining a rating of ‘Unacceptable’ by the American Human Association. Kurahara Productions would respond by stating that all death scenes or sequences placing animals in peril were carefully recreated in a studio under controlled conditions. Filming reportedly took place in the snow-covered climes of Northern Hokkaido, interspersed with second unit footage of Antarctica itself.

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Connections

The term Sakhalin derives from the Russian island of the same name, where the huskies were originally bred. North of Hokkaido, the long and slender landmass known in Japanese as ‘Karafuto’ has long been a point of contention for the two nations, only in recent history becoming fully Russian territory. Before this, its sovereignty regularly changed and it was once home to the Ainu, an indigenous population since relocated to Japan in the 20th Century. The dogs used in the expedition were bred in Hokkaido. Eight Below, Hollywood’s remake of Antarctica, uses Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes – a malamute also having been used in The Thing, reviewed last week.

Pictured left: A Sakhalin husky. Acknowledgements to www.dogfacts.org for the photo.

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“The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world.”

Antarctic-born Taro and Jiro proved the best-able to survive their freezing fate.

However it was done, the attempt at realism paid off, with the plight of the dogs still just as believable today as it appeared in 1983. Sequences that could now only be achieved through CGI are all the more solid and powerful knowing that they were practically realised. Kurahara seems also to be aware that such sequences can only be used sparingly, not only for dramatic reasons, but also because even in a canine-centric tale, human drama will always be more compelling.

This is further evident with the presence of a narrator over the scenes where the huskies are fending for themselves. It gives both the impression at times of a documentary, but also an uninvited dose of silliness, as the narrator attempts to explain what the dogs are feeling and their motivations in a particular scene. The viewer is well-aware of the situation and can easily discern the action from the screen. It would have been far more powerful to let the visuals and the soundtrack to tell the story than a patronising anthropomorphisation of the protagonists. Fortunately, this is not a major irritation and the visuals do indeed speak volumes.

There is a definite underlying theme of Japanese indomitability throughout the tale, perhaps unsurprising given the pioneering subject matter. An amusing scene between the rescued crew and the captain of the U.S icebreaker Burton Island assisting in their departure underscores the strong sense of nationalism that might have been more pervasive had Antarctica told the story of the Showa base itself. While those at home did not fully appreciate the difficulties of the mission, there was a great sense of national pride at the expedition itself. It had not been long since the Second World War and a rapidly rebuilding nation had in only 12 years joined the Antarctic program long dominated in the early 20th Century by public and private enterprise in the U.S. The sentiment of which only occasionally bubbles to the surface in Antarctica, serving as a powerful undercurrent to the story and a context to the ‘can-do’ spirit of the team, as opposed to a time-serving mentality one might be more likely to find in the South Pole today now that the novelty has worn off.

Returning to Showa a year later, Professor Ushioda is greeted by an impossible vision.

To the average viewer however, Antarctica is the poignant true story of life and death for man’s best friend in one of the harshest places on earth. I won’t claim to have shed tears during its 143 minutes, but having owned a dog or two in my life, I also cannot say I was unaffected by their predicament. There is a certain amount of guilt at confessing to an enjoyment of animal-based drama, largely in part due to Disney’s many years of cheapening the genre. The genuine article is a different beast altogether, and stands on higher ground with its honesty. Realistically-drawn, well-paced and visually-arresting, Antarctica remains an epic retelling of history and a compelling emotional tale for humans and canines alike decades after its original release. For the polar enthusiast, it returns us to the final days of an era when Antarctica was the last great frontier, before it was conquered by the inevitable mediocrity of familiarity and taxation.

*****

Further Reading

To see photos of the actual expedition at Showa Base and the dogs Taro and Jiro, visit this page. Scroll down until you see the photo section.

Click here to read the assessment of the American Human Association on Antarctica.

Visit this page to learn additional information, including the thoughts of Professor Kitamura.

*****

Next Time

Clips, or it didn’t happen: we return to where it all began and look at the ‘A’ series of World On Film – a chance to discover the films reviewed earlier all on one page. With pictures.


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