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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
In elementary school I wrote a short story about a kid, appropriately named Zack, and his dog, Scout (my dog’s name of course) that I called “A Dog’s Tail” (very clever, I know). I was so proud of my story, that I entered it in a local writing contest. Though I never heard back, I’ve ever since been a sucker for a story about a dog and its family. I spent time watching Old Yeller, Bingo, Benji, and many, many others in my formative years. Unbeknownst to me, in 1994, Japanese animation studio Bandai Visual and production company Kadokawa Shoten released the feature family film Junkers Come Here, the story of an eleven year old girl (Hiromi) and her pet miniature schnauzer (Junkers, pronounced Germanically as ‘Yoonkers’). It was as if they were making this movie for an audience solely composed of me, except that I didn’t hear about it until just this year.
All throughout the anime boom of the late 90s to about roughly 2007 (which unofficially begins with the explosion of Pokemon and ends with the implosion of Haruhi Suzumiya, I’ve decided), I never once heard about an animated tale of a girl and her dog. I don’t recall ever seeing it at stores, nor did I find it at convention booths. I saw most everything in the anime genre in those years, from high school kids that change into animals to animals that change into robots, but I never saw Junkers. I don’t think I ever really got close, in fact. This retroactively angers me, as the film is absolutely amazing, a triumph of the anime genre and a downright classic. Junkers Come Here is not only one of the best anime feature films I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best animated films from any country ever produced.
An exceptionally mature production, Junkers Come Here is the story of Hiromi, a middle school girl who is depressed over the state of her young life. Her father is almost always overseas, working his job as a high profile commercial director. Her mother is exceedingly busy as well, working for an international hotel company at the corporate level. The two are so busy, they barely have time for Hiromi on her birthday, as her father just barely makes it on time and her mother misses it completely. Meanwhile, Hiromi’s only connection to a stable adult world, her tutor Keisuke (who is eleven years her elder as well as her erstwhile crush), is engaged to Yoko, a far more age appropriate partner and professional puppeteer. This engagement threatens Hiromi’s world as well, as Keisuke is the one adult in her life she can relate to and count on, and one of the few stable, consistent presences in her life.
All throughout her domestic ordeals, Hiromi has Junkers, her miniature schnauzer, at her side. Junkers is no ordinary dog – he has the ability to talk (but only seems to communicate with Hiromi on most occasions for fear of being discovered), and grants Hiromi three wishes which she can use to help alter the depressing world around her. Junkers senses the sadness and depression in his master, but can rarely empathize with her except to offer her the wishes as an escape clause. Junkers is intelligent, but doesn’t understand the concept of divorce (“splitting up” as Hiromi refers to it) and doesn’t understand why Hiromi does things like binging on hamburgers or secretly following Keisuke and his girlfriend around. Junkers is a guileless character, seeking out and hoping for the best in the people around him – the people who, as a dog, he relies on to take care of him.
Hiromi is one of the most mature child protagonists in a film I’ve ever seen. She is precocious but not annoyingly so. She’s intelligent, but not intelligent enough to avoid making the common mistakes that a kid would make. She’s sensitive and sweet and irritating and funny all at once. In short, she acts the way a real kid would act in most circumstances. It’s often said that kids are smarter than we realize, and Hiromi fits this description well. She’s exceedingly mature for her age, and her struggles in the movie – and her eventual breakdown – are realistic, sad, and almost haunting in a lot of ways. Hiromi is, as Keisuke puts it, desperately lonely. She seeks attention from the adults in her world, but due to her maturity, her parents often overlook the fact that she’s only a child.
Haunting, in fact, is a good way to describe Junkers Come Here. What I expected would be a lighthearted adventure or comedy turned out to be a heavy-hitting drama about a family falling apart. At one point, a tearful Hiromi proclaims to Junkers, “It feels like I’m losing everyone,” and it’s not hard to both see and hear the pain in the character. The animation, with its beautiful hand-painted look (something we don’t get any more sadly), helps convey the range of emotions in the characters to great effect. Even Junkers himself behaves like a real dog would behave, cowering when scared and standing up straight when excited, etc. The film has its fair share of humorous and family oriented gags and jokes, but Junkers Come Here could be enjoyed by any age group really.
I can’t believe I didn’t hear about Junkers Come Here until a few short weeks ago. It is a beautiful movie, complete with a cast of complicated, well-written characters and true emotional resonance. With an emotional, dramatic story and likeable protagonist, it is an absolute shame this movie hasn’t reached a wider audience (I bought it for about $6 on Amazon which was well worth it). The anime bubble may have burst about a half decade back, but it certainly wasn’t because of productions like Junkers Come Here. I’d argue in fact that more films like this could have potentially saved anime in America, or at least prolonged its popularity. This is a great little movie that families need to see. In the end, Junkers may or may not be a magical dog, but his movie is really quite special.