Hiromi’s family life would be enough to stress out any teenager. Her mother and father are so estranged from each other they barely know how to say hello; her housemaid is closer to her than either of her parents; she’s got a crush on her tutor, who barely realizes she’s alive; and her only source of real solace comes from her talking dog, Junkers (pronounced YOON-kers, not JUNK-ers).
This does not sound like the premise for a compelling story, I know. It’s the talking-dog bit that probably had you fleeing in horror, right? Surprise: Junkers Come Here is a lovely piece of work, one of the best examples of how an animated movie aimed at younger viewers doesn’t have to be condescending, smarmy, or illiterate to be good. It’s the sort of movie a parent can watch with their children without having to switch off nine-tenths of their brain, and the sort of movie children can watch with ten-tenths of their heart engaged. It deals with issues that many children might themselves face, but it’s never saccharine and often full of keen wit. (Small wonder that it was based on a children’s novel written in Japan, as was Kiki’s Delivery Service.)
Hiromi’s parents are well-off enough to afford a comfortable house and plenty of things for her to play with, but like most kids with proxy parenting of some kind, she’s lonely. Her best friend is jealous that her sister, barely only a few years older, is getting married; Hiromi would be happy to even have a sister. She’s a good student, but her heart’s just not in it — she daydreams about her departed grandmother, and about one perfect day she spent with her mother and father on the beach all those years ago, when he mistakenly waded into the water and was only too happy to pull his shoes off for a family snapshot.
Now his father shoots TV commercials all around the world, and her mother works late nights that sometimes turn into overnights. The tutor, Keisuke, and the maid, Fumie, form a kind of a family, but they both know that Hiromi needs her real mother and father. When they do show up, they’re happy to be with her, but there is only so much time, and the ever-insistent call of work to drag them apart once again. Hiromi is hardly alone — many of her classmates are probably dealing with the same sort of absentee parentism — but that doesn’t make her feel any better.
And then there is Junkers, the little terrier that trots around behind her, watches jidai-geki shows on TV and provides her with what cheer and sage council he can. Hiromi is all too aware of just how bizarre the whole thing is, which is why she does everything in her power to keep other people from finding out. In one of the funniest scenes, both for the way it’s animated and the nature of the scene itself, Hiromi dramatizes for Junkers what they might to do to him if people found out: “They’d put you in the circus and make you jump through hoops of fire! Jump! Jump!”
Hiromi and Fumie both have eyes for the handsome tutor.
Junkers would love for the world to know his secret, but Hiromi dissuades him easily.
Hiromi’s other big fixation is her tutor, Keisuke, a handsome young fellow who lives in the house in exchange for helping Hiromi with her studies. He sees the whole thing as a job, not a way of life, but both Hiromi and Fumie dote on him endlessly. At one point Fumie brings up snacks for both of them, and we see a close-up of Fumie pushing one toe against the ground like a bashful schoolgirl. Keisuke, however, already has his future mapped out: he’s got a fiancée, a career, all the things Hiromi can only stand around and see happening from the outside. But he is not so dense that he cannot see Hiromi desperately needs her mother and father, more than ever before now that she is becoming a young woman and not simply a girl.
Junkers could be best described as “Miyazakiesque,” and it has exactly the same sort of breathless, delicate wonder about it. the director, Junichi Sato, previously worked on the Sailor Moon series, but here brings a totally different sensibility to the material. The film’s beautiful to look at, with watercolor backgrounds that have the warmth and feel of a storybook instead of the cold, processed look of a TV show. He also loves to show the characters doing simple things, like massaging a sore neck or rolling over in bed, that a more workmanlike director would omit as being unneeded. Here, they’re part of the texture of the story; they make the whole thing feel that much more credible. This is probably twice as important when you’re dealing with a story about a talking dog, where one misstep would break the spell.
Hiromi's fantasy life has to take a backseat to the realities of her world,
but that doesn't mean she's incapable of changing things.
A story like this would probably not work with real human actors — at least, it wouldn’t work as well as it does here. Yes, it is possible to use CGI to give us a talking dog. It may be technically convincing, but it isn’t credible. Animation allows an audience a little more play with their imaginations; it invests credibility into things that would seem awkward or outlandish as live-action. Sometimes you need to be expressive rather than forensically realistic. Case in point: there has been serious talk on and off of adapting the apocalyptic Akira as a live-action movie. Could they do it, even with a theoretically unlimited budget? Maybe — but would it be an improvement, or just a redundancy?
What I liked most about Junkers was how it argues for Hiromi and her family in such an unexpected way. Yes, Hiromi is smart and self-motivated and is going to grow up to be a great young woman — but in the meantime, she needs a mother and father, and that does not make her weak. It simply makes her into the same as any young girl in this world. The emotions are the best part why the movie works so well. It’s all of a piece. We’re never just looking at a story about a talking dog.