My daughter loves dogs, but like a lot of people since “Marley & Me” she’s skittish around new dog movies, afraid that she’ll invest her time and emotions only to have to watch the cute little thing die and then grieve with the owners. When you have a film like “Quill” that’s subtitled “The Life of a Guide Dog,” which implies a cradle-to-grave treatment, it can be off-putting. But the minute she saw that “Quill” was in Japanese (“I don’t feel like reading!”) she left me to watch it by myself.
[Spoiler paragraph] This is a “full life” story, but it’s recounted in the same low-key style as the rest of the film—nowhere near the devastating dramatics people went through with Marley.
“Quill” is a tough movie to review, though. I mean, how can you say anything bad about a cute little Labrador puppy who grows up to be a loyal guide dog, even though his cranky owner keeps him outside rather than allowing him to share his dwelling? Then again, “Quill” isn’t your typical dog movie.
It’s more low-key, for one thing—so low key that it feels like a true story or one of those based-on-a-true-story films, which the box notes tell us it is. We watch Quill stand out as a pup, we watch him as he’s trained by a foster couple until his first birthday, and we watch him as he begins his solo training as a guide dog, then training with his potential handler afterwards, and finally working with his new handler.
At times the content and treatment make you feel as if you’re watching a documentary, but the scenes are so obviously scripted that you’re constantly reminded that’s not the case. As drama, though, it doesn’t create or sustain much tension, or even a dramatic question. You know from the beginning that Mr. Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi) is going to give in and apply for a guide dog, and you know that he and Quill are going to become closer. But when one of the standout scenes occurs when he leaves the compound against orders with his dog and heads to town to try to buy a beer from one of several vending machines, you know the film isn’t going to win any blue ribbons for drama.
It’s interesting learning about the stages a guide dog goes through in order to learn how to behave. When the trainer says that a dog has to make himself hide when he’s not needed, I thought of a blind man who got on a bus I was riding and he sat down in a seat. Within seconds his German shepherd had managed to crawl under his seat and the one next to him to avoid being in the way or getting stepped on as people got off and on. For me that was a moment of wonder and revelation, and while there are several in “Quill,” I expected more.
The acting, meanwhile, is competent but not distinguished, which reinforces the notion of watching a documentary. But if it’s a drama—despite the obvious premise that the dog is the star and focus of attention—I expected more. Even the couple that gets the most attached to the dog—Isamu and Mitsuko (Teruyuki Kagawa, Shinobu Terajima)—is pretty low-key except for one slightly emotional goodbye.
One thing the lack of serious drama does is allow you to look around and notice things—like the perfectly charming original music by the Kuricorder Quartet, or the occasional scenic long shot from Junichi Fujisawa.
Mostly, though, “Quill” is a drama that feels like a documentary . . . or vice versa. And that makes it kind of a strange animal.
“Quill” is presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen, and like the film itself the video quality is perfectly adequate. Colors and skin tones look natural, and there isn’t so much grain that it detracts from the film. There is some slight noise in exterior backgrounds, but that’s about it.
The featured audio is a Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1, with English subtitles. Again, it’s a purely functional audio with nothing special that’s worthy of comment. It’s a restrained audio, again, like the film.
There are no bonus features.
As dog stories go, I can’t think of one that’s more low-key and matter-of-fact. I don’t know how much dramatic value “Quill” has, but dog lovers should enjoy the puppy footage and the training sequences.