By Takashi Murakami
128 pages, black and white
Published by NBM
Stargazing Dog is the kind of book that will either grab you instantly with its cover, or make you run screaming. For me, there’s something instantly attractive about an image of a cute dog in a field of sunflowers that made me want to read this comic that was a runaway success in its native Japan. What I found inside, though, was a strange duo of stories about the relationship between men and dogs. It’s bittersweet, but I appreciated that it didn’t take the easy way out.
The first half of Stargazing Dog is the titular story, where a family adopts a puppy named Happie, but over time the father finds his wife and daughter drifting away from him, until it is just him and Happie on the road, trying to make ends meet. Takashi Murakami takes a slightly peculiar approach to the narrative here, starting off by making the father extremely standoffish and not terribly good on a personal level with anyone. It makes him hard to get excited about when the book’s cast contracts to just him and the dog, as a result. You can see this being a story of (somewhat) redemption for the father, but none the less it’s a bit of a speed bump for those earlier chapters.
Then again, even once it’s just the two of them, he’s not the most dashing of protagonists. He makes some ridiculous mistakes along the way, and there are some hiccups that are hard to believe (why is all of his money in cash?) that seem to exist solely to push the pair of them into ruin. But if you ignore the plot and just focus on the story of Happie, it’s a sad if touching story about devotion and unconditional love that will do its best to tug at heartstrings. That’s something that is echoed in "Sunflowers," an epilogue starring a different character who comes to investigate the aftermath of "Stargazing Dog." It’s another piece about the love that a dog gives its owner, and while the story itself seems slightly unnecessary, I appreciated that this protagonist was a bit more admirable and interesting. Once again, Murakami deliberately avoids a simple, pat, happy ending, and it makes me wonder if this is a hallmark of all of his fiction or if he was trying to stay in the same vein as "Stargazing Dog."
Murakami’s art in Stargazing Dog is a blocky but attractive style. I love how he draws Happie, with his perpetually eager and joyous canine face. A lot of the emotion of the story comes not from the script but from the visuals of the piece; it’s hard to keep from finding yourself entranced by Happie as he goes from good to bad situation but still has that upbeat canine spirit. He brings a lot of detail to the book, too; the fields of vegetation are drawn in a thick but interesting manner, letting you feel like you’re really seeing an area that’s choked by weeds and flowers. Looking at the old houses and cars, or the masses of sunflowers helps sell this story as being about a real place.
Stargazing Dog is a good book, and it’s easy to see why it became such a smash hit in Japan. It’s probably little too saccharine in places for some readers, but there’s enough bleakness here too that I ultimately found that it worked far better than I’d expected. I do wish the story had a little more meat on its bones in places, but as it’s much more of an emotional than plot-oriented piece that’s understandable. I’ll definitely take a look at future comics from Murakami. If nothing else, I’d like to see what he can do without placing dogs in harm’s way to still stir up emotion. For now, though, I’m satisfied with Stargazing Dog.