Monday, March 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #68: Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami

Every sequence of events has in it the seeds of every kind of story: it can be a tragedy, a comedy, or farce, depending on whose point-of-view you see it from, when you begin, and when you end. Some frames fit more comfortably than others, but you can shove a story into any frame you want -- and, if you're skilled enough, you can even make it fit.

One way of alleviating a story that would otherwise be unrelievedly bleak is through that point-of-view trick: tell the story of a woman imprisoned for years by her child, for example. Or tell the story of a middle-aged man who loses his job, then his family, and then everything else as seen by his faithful and ever-loving dog.

The latter is what Takashi Murakami's Stargazing Dog does, and that's what keeps it from being entirely bleak. It's still a tragedy -- Murakami would have had to do a lot more damage to this story to avoid that -- but it's a tragedy seen through uncomprehending eyes, with a viewpoint that's positive and happy as only a dog can be.

Happie is that dog; we see most of Stargazing Dog through his eyes. Though we do begin outside of that viewpoint, and have a long section at the end outside of it as well: those frame Happie's story, and tell us the things we need to know to understand what Happie and his "Daddy" did and experienced. So we know from the second page that this is some kind of tragedy: that a man and his dog are already dead.

But Happie begins his story from puppyhood, and his viewpoint never loses that essential sweetness and enthusiasm about life. That life is a pleasant routine for many years, with Mom (who feeds him), Daddy (who walks him) and Miku (who grows up in the space of a couple pages and ignores him). The happy years are gone in a few panels: Daddy is soon left jobless with a heart condition, and then Mom divorces him, for what seems to be the Japanese equivalent of "it's not you, it's me."

So Daddy takes Happie in his car and the two head south, heading to Daddy's childhood home, where he hopes things will be better. It doesn't work out that way, of course. They make it some distance to the south, but their things -- money and possessions and papers, options and choices and ways out -- are stripped from them one by one.

But nothing can take Happie's joy for life, and nothing will drag him away from Daddy. So when the end comes for each of them -- as it comes for all of us, after all -- we see it through Happie's eyes. And then, after the end, we get to see a hardworking social worker try to figure out who Daddy was, and to give us more context about what happened to them.

Stargazing Dog is more than just a sad story, though: it's a critique, sharply aimed in its oblique way, at specific government policies in Japan that Murakami thinks created an army of "Daddies." Maybe they all didn't hit the road with their dogs, but they each suffered in their own ways, and Murakami thinks it was unnecessary. (I don't have the background to judge, so I'll leave it at that.) Murakami has an afterword explaining some of this, though it's written in that self-effacing style so common in Japanese culture, which leaves me wondering about its nuances.

Still, Stargazing Dog has a strong story to tell, and it tells it in a strong way: Happie is a lovely literary creation and Daddy is an interesting individual, even if we don't really know the particulars of his travails and problems. Although this is translated from the Japanese, it's presented "flipped" -- reading left-to-right, like Western comics -- which will make it easier to follow for the vast majority of Americans. And, in the end, its message is positive: even an abandoned man like Daddy had a faithful dog to love him and be with him at the end.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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