Be prepared. This manga by Takashi Murakami 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.)