*Stargazing Dog — Best of 2011

Be prepared. This manga is not so much the “heartwarming” tale it’s been promoted as; the word I’d use is “heartbreaking”. It’s still worth reading, but I found it emotionally wringing, something I kept thinking about long after finishing the book.

Stargazing Dog begins with a Titanic-style “everyone winds up dead” scene, as officers investigate an abandoned car with two dead bodies inside, a man and his dog. Yet it’s surprisingly tranquil, opening with gorgeously drawn dragonflies flitting above overgrown vegetation. And as you continue through the story, you’ll forget the tragic opening to which we eventually return.

The dog narrates, from his joining a family as a puppy to the increasing amounts of time the father spends with him. Dad didn’t choose the pet, but those two are the ones that end up bonding. We know it’s due to the father’s downward spiral, as he loses his job and thus his mooring to society, as the family members grow up and drift apart, but the dog just enjoys their time together.

I was throughout feeling “there, but for the grace of God, go I … or someone I care about.” We think we have so much, but just one medical problem or break-up or bad job choice, and we can lose it all. Although created in a different culture, this is a very timely story for the here and now. The father wants things to stay the same, but the world and others move on around him, and staying in place ends up taking him backwards.

The title ascribes a quality to dogs of “star[ing] at the stars wistfully. Just as we all wish for something that we will never possess.” It’s not how Americans are used to thinking of their pets, as wannabe scholar astronauts, but there’s one quality dogs in every culture share. That’s loyalty, and this book demonstrates how one loving companion can make even the most discouraging circumstances bearable.

Choosing to keep a pet requires sacrifices. It’ll restrict where you can live, as well as changing your own habits to take care of another living creature. The father’s love for his dog humanizes him; his relationships with other people may have failed, but he gives up everything for his canine companion.

The dog is adorable, of course, even if the father, in his sunglasses, looks like a mobster caricature. This translated manga has been flipped, to read left-to-right, which does result in the occasional direction glitch. There are a couple of times when the father says “let’s drive with the sea on our left”, and the reversed art shows the water on the right.

By using the dog as a narrator, the modern-day conflicts of civilization become simplified. Does one have anything to eat? Something to do? Someone to spend time with? All else is irrelevant. There’s a lot of sadness to this story, but also a sense of hope, that as long as dogs love people, we have something to live up to. If nothing else, we can enjoy how cute the dog is drawn, even in disturbing circumstances.

The last chapter of the book is a sequel story, “Sunflowers”. It’s the tale of a social worker living alone in his grandparents’ house, tending their garden and their ancient automobile, with his own memories of a dog he had as a child. The book concludes with an author’s note with his thoughts on his protagonist and what he says about the state of society.

NBM has posted preview pages. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

6 Comments

  1. [...] Reading’s Johanna Draper Carlson recommends it [...]

  2. [...] like they chose an interesting piece of work to debut with. There’s a review of it over at MangaWorthReading that makes me even more eager to find a copy. It does sound like my assumption of needing some [...]

  3. I haven’t read the book but coming back to the US from Shanghai recently I was surprised to find this featured on the movie list. I sat riveted as I watched this man’s life fall apart all around him. Everything crashes in his path. He loses his job, his disability, his wife, his kid and then his house. Only the adopted dog, Happy, who “Daddy” did not originally want, chooses to stay with his master. When Obi san eventually finds himself facing his own demise, he offers the dog to a kindly innkeeper. Only the dog refuses to go and chooses the fate of his best friend. They end up in a park. .foraging garbage, roots and berries. That’s where Obi san and Happy fade away. It’s a tale of survival. One eventually both man and his beloved pet both lose.

    It’s absolutely heartwrenching to feel the pain of a man so beaten down. Yet, his faithful companion stays on. .choosing to forage for food even after his master has passed on. Fittingly he stays with Obi’s remains as he succumbs. The young social worker who investigated the case skillfully unraveled the man’s recent past and discovers that his loss of both parents and a grandparent had left him with a void. .softened by his dog, Kuro. He searches for answers that eventually find yet another abandoned pup in a new home.

    I’ve owned dogs all my life. Mostly rescues and strays. I’ve felt the pangs of homelessness and despair. What happened to Obi San can happen to any and/or all of us. It’s a tragic story. But, through it all, the love of a dog for his keeper never wanes–even though the dog could have easily found a new home. That’s love and devotion. When I stepped off that plane and made it home, the first thing I did was take my two dogs for a long walk. I see that same look in their eyes.

    This is a beautifully crafted movie. You’ll need something to clear the tears. It will leave an impression.

  4. [...] Stargazing Dog (NBM) — There was a noticeable lack of single-volume manga this year — perhaps publishers feel that a series gets them more return on their marketing — but this one stood out for its melancholy look at a normal man’s life and the love of a pet. [...]

  5. [...] NBM, there’s another chance to get Takashi Murakami’s clear-eyed tearjerker Stargazing Dog ($11.99, due May 3, MAR12 1131), one of my Best Manga of [...]

  6. i also saw this film on a plane and it was one of the best movies i’ve ever seen….been trying to locate a copy of the dvd…any idea where i might find one? i can’t even find evidence online that the film was ever made!

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