Akane Yamada’s moving docu-drama finds the countless lost dogs and cats in the 20-kilometre “red zone” around the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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MOVIE INFO

Dogs without Names (2015)

Screenplay and directed by Akane Yamada
Starring Satomi Kobayashi, Takaya Kamikawa, Misato Aoyama and Saori Imamura

Akane Yamada’s film looks at the tens of thousands of lost dogs and cats in Japan—a testament to compassion, hope and the unbreakable bond between people and the animals they love.


 

“A powerful glimpse of the 3.11 disaster that gives a new perspective”

Last year, researchers at Japan’s Azabu University School of Veterinary Medicine made a fascinating discovery: both dogs and their owners who trained a long gaze on one another exhibited elevated levels of oxytocin, the hormone associated with nurturing and attachment. Increased oxytocin levels reflect the feel-good feedback that bolsters bonding between parent and child, and go a long way to explaining how dogs have come to be accepted as “man’s best friend.”

Whether rooted chemistry, emotion or the spiritual, there is no disputing that the bond between us and our canine friends is something rare and uncanny. It is this sentiment that is at the heart of Akane Yamada’s poignant docu-drama Dogs without Names.

A television director, Kanami, played by Satomi Kobayashi (Pale Moon, Kamome Diner), is devastated by the passing of her beloved dog Natsu. At the suggestion of a friend she throws herself back into work and a documentary about dogs, in particular the plight of those suffering as the output of unscrupulous “puppy mills” or awaiting adoption—or more likely euthanasia—in overcrowded animal control centres.

At this point the film shifts from a fictional drama about a grieving filmmaker to the documentary film she sets out to make. We witness painful scenes as abandoned animals await their end (161,000 animals die annually in Japan), but she also meets some of the exceptional and passionate people dedicated to saving them. The members of the Chiba-wan group identify adoptable dogs from among the feral and take them into their homes while searching for potential adopters. She learns of the tireless operators of Hiroshima’s Minashigo Support—Yuri Nakatani and Yoshimi Terada—who travelled to the stricken region following the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster of March 11, 2011. Within three days of the event, they had entered the 20-km exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant and they share extraordinary footage from eerie post-apocalyptic towns populated solely by animals: the dead, the starving and the lost.

Kanami’s journeys also take us to a nursing home in Yokosuka where both seniors and elderly dogs cohabitate, each bringing comfort and companionship into lives hollowed out by time. She reconnects with the members of Chiba-wan to rescue 46 abused animals from a disreputable breeder, and later joins excursions to post-3.11 temporary housing to reunite lost dogs with their owners, in one case four years after the dog was swept away in the tsunami.

Director Yamada manages to skilfully combine and balance the fictional and nonfictional components throughout, allowing dialogue between the fictional Kanami and her ex-husband (Takaya Kamikawa) to provide structure and further contextualize the documentary footage. Satomi Kobayashi brings tranquil determination and a quiet charisma to her role, and her scenes with Kamikawa engage with a guarded intimacy that feels authentic.

For every scene of inhumanity—cruel puppy mills that see dogs as little more than product, or heartless owners for whom an animal is but an accessory to be disposed of when something new comes along—there are people like Nakatani and Terada. Their tireless energy and dedication truly inspires, as does Yamada’s film. It is a tale of hope, compassion and humanity.

 

Director Akane Yamada will be in attendance at a special screening at the JCCC on March 10 in support of the JCCC’s Earthquake Relief Fund, raising money for university scholarships in the Tohoku region. www.jccc.on.ca