Antarctica: A dog's life

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 06, 2019 21:04 hrs

The relationship between man and dog is explored in this 1983 Japanese movie set against the backdrop of an ill-fated Japanese scientific expedition to the South Pole

"These are the stories the Dogs tell, when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north." These opening lines from Clifford D. Simak's City could encapsulate the tone of Antarctica.

The 1983 movie, officially Nankyoku Monogatari or South Pole Story, Antarctica is one of Japanese filmmaker Koreyoshi Kurahara's final works. The plot centers on the 1958 ill-fated scientific expedition to the South Pole and the relationship between the scientists and their Sakhalin huskies, and the fates of the 15 dogs left behind to fend for themselves.

It is February 1958 and the second Cross-Winter Expedition for the Japanese Antarctic Surveying Team rides on the icebreaker Soya to take over from the 11-man First Cross-Winter Expedition. However, extreme weather conditions force the expedition into retreat.

The first quarter or so follows the day-to-day of the expedition; but in the frozen desert everyday activities seems supramundane. In a pivotal scene scientists Ushioda (Ken Takakura) and Ochi (Tsunehiko Watase) and the fifteen huskies need to cover about twenty kilometers in what should be a quick trip but ends up becoming a struggle for survival. The explorers continue headlong into the mission and the dogs, despite fatigue, continue as their masters do. On the way back, as the humans temporarily lost lose their sight due to snow blindness, two dogs, Taro and Jiro, are sent to walk the rest of the way and alert help.

From this moment, Taro and Jiro are no longer mere animals for the two men, but distinct beings responsible for saving their lives.

Eventually extreme weather conditions force the explorers to leave the base unmanned. The team is worried about the dogs, as the weather is bitter and food in short supply.

With much consternation on the part of the handlers the 15 huskies are left chained up at the base. Eight of the dogs break free from their chains and with limited food supply are forced to turn to the white wilderness. The other seven starve to death, beginning a cycle of the many canine deaths that follow (John Wick would be furious at this sight).

The remaining dogs are forced to survive on hunting penguins and seals on the ice shelves and even on eating seal excrement and eventually on their own feces. As the months pass, most die or disappear. And yet some continue to survive and even begin to comfort themselves in this unsafe and yet somehow enchanting space wherein they find themselves. This dichotomy reaches its apotheosis in a beautiful scene where the dogs behold the aurora australis, or southern lights. The camera peers into the dogs' eyes as they stare at the Earth's magnetic lightshow and the viewer is forced to ask a question Richard Feynman once contended with: do animals have a sense of things aesthetic?

The protagonists of Antarctica are unquestionably Taro and Jiro, the two dogs who are part of a team of fifteen huskies and while the film does focus on their relationships with their masters the meat of the film's run-time goes to the duo. The sled dogs become invaluable friends to the men, who are sad and initially unwilling to leave when a second exploration party arrives by ship.

Back in Japan, Ushioda and Ochi cannot assuage the guilt they feel for abandoning the dogs. When another expedition is formed, they sign up and bring the film to its conclusion.

Antarctica is a fascinating tribute to the survival instincts of the huskies. The account of their handlers points out the deep bonds that can exist between animals and humans. And the film, based on fact, gives an interesting visual portrait of Antarctica's unusual environment.

Koreyoshi Kurahara, known more outside of his native Japan for his contribution to the country's cinematic New Wave with its overt sexual and violent imagery, is considerably more restrained in Antarctica. Perhaps because the human players are so marginal to the central story, Kurahara allows the dogs to 'speak' more loudly. Kurahara and veteran cinematographer Akira Shiizuka never let the landscape overwhelm the true stars of the story.

From the opening of the film, Kurahara shows beautiful but stark images of a white continent stretching as far as the eye can see, populated sparsely. Both the humans and the dogs in the film are cast in the mould of adventurers of the impossible. The bond of man and dog is amplified in a particularly thoughtful scene set in Japan where Ushioda having safely returned to his home is deeply concerned about the state he left the dogs in.

The camera contemplates these men and the dogs and their actions in the face of a continent that is both simultaneously beautiful and inhospitable.

One cannot leave Antarctica the movie without making mention of the minimalist and cold score by Vangelis. The pieces conjure the cold desolation of the landscape but bolster the ethereal nature of the landscapes.

Antarctica will leave the audience in a state of gloom and a corresponding elation as one witnesses man and dog face a seductive and pitiless nature.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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