Dog In A Sidecar (Saido kâ ni inu)

Japan (2007) Dir. Kichitaro Negishi

Adult influence in our lives when we are children is essential, though it doesn’t always go the way it should depending on who is providing the guidance. Normally, we would look to our parents for this important job but fate often prevents this from happening. Can we trust an outside to fulfil this role instead?

Kaoru Kondo (Mimura) is a soon to be 30 year-old estate agent taking a day off work to help an old friend with his fishing shop when a young girl approaches her, struggling to bait a hook. As Kaoru talks to the girl, she finds herself thinking back to when she was 10, when her mother (Sawa Suzuki), tired of being a house maker, suddenly walks out on the family.

She leaves behind Kaoru (Hana Matsumoto), younger brother Toru (Takeru Taniyama) and their feckless father Makoto (Arata Furuta). One day as Kaoru is left alone at home a young woman enters the house announcing she is only there to cook, startling Kaoru. She is Yoko (Yuko Takeuchi), the free spirited new love of Makoto who takes Kaoru under her wing and opens her eyes to the fun side of life.

The plot summary might read a little like a Japanese slice-of-life take on Mary Poppins but I can assure you it isn’t. Dog In A Sidecar, based on the novel of the same name by Yu Nagashima, is a very Japanese film however, that is more a coming of age tale with a quirkiness that comes from a more natural place than a magical, singing nanny

It is found in the central relationship between Yoko and Kaoru, which may sound like a conventional set up of the new woman in daddy’s life trying to ingratiate herself to his kids but is nicely subverted. There are also elements which point to a gender reversal in a lot of their bonding moments that would usually play out with a boy adjusting to a new father figure, adding plenty to the film’s charm.

When Yoko first appears, she saunters into the tiny flat without a care in the world, casually lights up a cigarette without a concern for the young child cowering wide-eyed across the room, slumping into a chair with a male like lack of grace. Even without an introduction, both Kaoru and the audience are justified in wondering if this stranger is trouble of not.

Yet, Yoko is vivacious and strikingly pretty which takes the edge off any sense of danger and seems to convince Kaoru she can trust this woman to go shopping with her and expect to come home in one piece. One Makoto finally shows up, the next question is what on earth is a bohemian babe like Yoko doing with a tubby, dodgy used car-selling dad of two – a question never answered.

Despite her uncouth ways – Kaoru is aghast at Yoko using a curry dish to serve chocolate treats – Yoko gradually makes an impression on the youngsters, though to Toru she is simply “cool” because she plays games with him. It is interesting to note that Yoko’s role is initially explained as fulfilling the domestic gap left by their mother when Yoko is quite obviously someone who lives life on her own terms and really doesn’t need a man, so again we wonder what is in it for her?

Frustratingly, Yoko remains a closed book for the whole film; the only thing the audience is allowed to see is what she shares with Kaoru and the others. With the exception of one scene where she confronts a dodgy business associate of Makoto’s, dressed much more smartly and acting less effervescent than usual, she remains an enigma like Mary Poppins only she’ll leave on a bicycle and not via flying umbrella.

As you might expect, this experience is as enriching and life affirming for Yoko as it is for Kaoru, gaining much more than a shopping pal or a bike riding partner but a friend, and maybe even a taste of what motherhood is like without the actual childbirth part. For Kaoru, we have to look at her adult self to see what she gained from knowing Yoko, which initially doesn’t appear to be much until after the nostalgia trip, when we witness an apparent reawakening of this side of her.

Not having read the novel I can’t say if it ends with the same oblique, open abruptness as the one here from director Kichitaro Negishi, leaving us with a number of loose ends from the past still dangling. However, the sense of hope and palpable forward-looking aura felt in this denouement is something of a minor compensation, as if we know things are going to be fine via some sort of predestined contrivance.  

Tears may flow and not all scenarios end on a happy note but this is more a result of life being a series of emotional trials than relentless abject misery and heavy drama. The tone is gentle and very upbeat throughout, and what messages it does impart are subtle and well meaning. Above all, it is a human story, set in an ordinary world with easily identifiable characters and situations that could happen to any of us.

With so much hinging on the chemistry between the two actors playing Yoko and Kaoru, Negishi’s choices being inspired and provident. Yuko Takeuchi was richly rewarded for her role and rightly so, making Yoko such a transfixing figure to follow yet retains an earthiness about her that is eminently likeable. Young Hana Matsumoto has gone onto have a great career of he own, and is adorable here but more importantly substantial in character as well.

Leaving so much up in the air might seem like an unfair way to treat the audience, but there is sufficient heart and amiable vibes in Dog In A Sidecar that we don’t feel cheated, even if the ride was a tad more enjoyable than the destination.