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Stargazing Dog
posted October 7, 2011
 

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Stargazing Dog is apparently NBM's first manga translation, although they've done several books from Korea. I imagine the publisher will do very well with the book. The story of a man's last days with the dog that stays loyal to him told through their experiences and then re-told through the reflections of the civil servant that wraps up his earthly affairs, Stargazing Dog is courageously downbeat. There's very little wasted time. Extreme discombobulation is the order of the day in the first few pages, as Murakami charges through the domestic set-up in which the dog is born and raised -- the subject of entire manga series -- at lightning speed. Approximately ten pages into the book, the child who found the dog as a puppy is a mostly absent teen; two pages after that the head of the household is sick and he and his wife are discussing a divorce. The main narrative thrust of the book's first half is the man's rapid decline from this formerly placid if unhappy domestic situation to homelessness and death at the hand of the ailment that enabled the formal conclusion to his marriage. We basically follow the man and the dog on a version of what Norm MacDonald once called "The Longest Walk Ever," lingering in sudden shift downward in status in an almost opposite way to the book's initial storytelling rush. The man becomes increasingly attached to the dog as both a companion and a sign of more comfortable, dependable times. The dog remains loyal throughout. Nothing here ends well.

imageMurakami portrays key story moments in almost brutal terms. For instance, when discussing the divorce the wife brings it up as yet another item of the business-of-the-day variety, and fairly demands the same emotionless agreement from her husband that he brought to past household decisions. The dog not only displays loyalty but specific, personal concern for his (her?) master, at one point expressing dismay at the man's financial state and at another barking at some bugs to keep them from feeding on his corpse. A homeless waif is introduced with hints of an even sadder story than the one being lived by our leads, and then off-panel steals the man's wallet and runs away. It's like watching Mark Beyer's Harry and Tonto. Stargazing Dog lays it on super-thick. While I think some readers may find the story affecting and the situation depicted genuinely scary -- in that it underlines how close we all are to being cut loose by society -- others are likely to find its story over-the-top and its emotional through-line bordering on shamelessness, and perhaps the whole affair suffering from a lack of sophistication.

Stargazing Dog becomes much more intriguing in its second half, when we explore what happened to the man and his dog once again, only this time through the eyes of a hard-working social worker who while devoted to his job seems to enjoy a very controlled and somewhat lonely personal life. Mr. Okutsu becomes emotionally affected by the apparent loyalty of the dead man's dog, which forces him into an extended, periodical reverie on how he mistreated and ignored his own pet growing up. This man-dog relationship is portrayed in the same blunt terms as the events leading to the first man's death -- no heart string is spared a solid plucking -- but the character proves much more compelling than pathetic for the self-imposed limits he enforces upon himself. It's a very recognizable brand of loneliness, and we frequently don't get to see characters operate, let alone function very well, from that place in life. Additionally, there's something genuinely affecting and even life-affirming in watching a man take to heart a lesson from someone else's life and apply it to his own. In this case it's a further nod to the notion that even a cast-off individual can have value. I don't know that I can always endorse how it gets from point A to point B, but Stargazing Dog is in many ways an admirably ruthless book.

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