Pile of Shame
The Tibetan Dog

by Justin Sevakis,

The Tibetan Dog

Japanese/Chinese co-productions don't happen very often. The last one I can think of would be 1997's anime adaptation of Tsui Hark's Chinese Ghost Story, which was charming in appearance but kind of a plodding, pointless affair. In 2007 another one started production, after anime Studio Madhouse secured a deal with China Film Co., Ltd. to produce a feature film for Chinese audiences, based on a bestselling series of children's novels by Yang Zhijun. Four years later, the film was released across Asia.

The Tibetan Dog is the story of Tianjing, a 10-year-old boy from the city of Xi'an, who must relocate to a tiny Tibetan settlement to live with his father after his mother passes away. Well, perhaps "settlement" is the wrong word -- it's really not much more than a few yurts in the middle of the vast steppes, where villagers raise sheep. There, Tianjing's dad Lageba serves as the village doctor. He barely makes a living at this (as he treats the poor -- which probably includes everybody around there -- for free, and actually makes his living raising sheep.)

The transition is a rough one: Besides coping with the recent loss of his mother, Tianjing is resolutely a city boy, and rural Tibetan life, with its harsh nature, bad food, and traditional dress, is not something he's prepared for. What's more, the family relationship is strained: Tianjing resents his father for not coming to save his mother from the illness that eventually took her life. Lageba, wracked with guilt, keeps his distance from the boy. Instead, he has the boy look after the sheep. Soon, Tianjing comes face to face with bears and wolves -- only to be saved by a Tibetan Mastiff with a brilliant gold coat.

Packs of wild Mastiffs are common sights around the village, and they're known to help out the humans in the area, though their relationship is more "occasional friend" than "pet." Nobody has seen this gold one before, however, and soon it's injured in a territorial fight with another dog. With his father's help Tianjing nurses both dogs back to health. The gold dog is far more wild, but takes an unusual liking to the boy. He names the dog Duoji Yongzhi after a magical gold stone on Kunlun Mountain at the suggestion of a friend. Duoji, for his part, seems to hit it off with the dog that attacked him, Nari.

Meanwhile, Lageba and the rest of the village is dealing with the invasion of a terrifyingly dark and violent creature, which kills local animals without eating them, and has even killed some humans. A local bandit leader sees Duoji near where his brother was fatally attacked, and accuses the dog (now widely known as Tianjing's pet) of being the killer, and declares that he intends to kill him. It's up to Tianjin to prove that Duoji is innocent, and that the real threat is still out there.

While family friendly anime features are awash in mediocre dramas about kids with dead parents, A Tibetan Dog is better than the majority of them. Rather than getting caught up in somber melodrama, the film is full of action, and treats both its humans and animal cast with a surprising amount of realism for what is basically a "boy and his dog" movie. There are occasional "wacky" moments (and the politics among the dogs is so human-like it's a little silly), the scripting is remarkably smart. The end result stacks up more with live action films such as Disney's White Fang than most animated fare. The film's raw depiction of life in Tibet is also quite unique, not just in anime but in film in general. The only thing that makes it a hard sell to Western audiences is the fact that it is quite violent at times, particularly against animals. There's a fair amount of beast-on-beast fighting, and things get quite bloody.

The Tibetan Dog was one of the last big projects spearheaded by Masao Maruyama during his time at Madhouse, and their work on the film is some of their best in recent memory. The project served as a reunion of sorts for the team behind the 2005 TV adaptation of Monster. In fact, Naoki Urasawa did the initial character designs (though they got reworked by Shigeru Fujita), and his influence on the look of the film will be obvious to his fans. Director Masayuki Kojima doesn't have many other credits to his name, but one particular stand-out is Piano Forest, which came out a few years earlier.

After its premere at the Annecy Film Festival, the film opened in China in July of 2011, where, despite its healthy budget of 60 Million Yuan (around US $9.3 Million at the time), the film fell flat on its face, grossing a paltry 1.35 Million Yuan (around US $209,300). The film opened among a string of other animated flops that summer, and while there are many theories about why the film tanked (a small number of screens, marketing falsely touting it as a Chinese production, audiences thinking it IS a poorly made Chinese production and staying away, unappealing subject matter), the film bombed in other markets as well. A release in Japan the following January seems to have made so little impact that there's scarcely even a Japanese Wikipedia page for the film.

This is a shame. While The Tibetan Dog is probably not going to be considered a classic, it's a very solid family film, and one of the best Japan has produced in the last decade that didn't come from Studio Ghibli. Its unique look at life in the Tibetan plains is fascinating and the animation is gorgeous. If there was an English dub, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to family audiences here in the States. But alas, if it hasn't happened by now, it probably won't.

Japanese Name: チベット犬物語 ~金色のドージェ~ (Tibet Inu Monogatari: Kin'iro no Dao Jie), 藏獒多吉 (Chinese)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 91 min.

Vintage: 2011

Genres: Family, Drama, Adventure

Availability (Japan): A DVD came out in 2012, and seems to have not sold well at all. Amazon Japan has only one brief review, and five used copies for sale. It only contains the Japanese dub, and not the original Mandarin audio.

Availability (English): The Chinese Blu-ray is all-region and contains English subtitles. It only contains the Mandarin audio track. The subtitles aren't well timed and have some questionable translation choices (at one point a character is called a "douche bag"), but they serve their purpose. I found it for $15 on YesAsia.com.

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