Be Warned, Dog Lovers: The Cover Of This Wildly Popular Manga Is Lying To You A sad-but-never-maudlin manga about a loyal dog and his luckless master has taken Japan by storm, and is now available in English.
NPR logo Be Warned, Dog Lovers: The Cover Of This Wildly Popular Manga Is Lying To You

Be Warned, Dog Lovers: The Cover Of This Wildly Popular Manga Is Lying To You

The happy, adorable cover of Stargazing Dog. By which you REALLY shouldn't judge the book, because *choke!* *sob!*

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D'awwwww. That cover is really something, no?

Were you the inveterate lover of dogs that I am, and you come across Takashi Murakami's Stargazing Dog in a bookstore, with its titular Akita pup beaming out at you amid a field of sunflowers like some escapee from the secret underground breeding kennels over at Cute Overload, you'd likely pick it up.

And you wouldn't be alone. Although an English translation has only now been published, the manga has sold over half a million copies in Japan and is being made into a film.

So you'd take the book home, settle into the couch, give the faithful dog curled at your feet an affectionate scratch between the ears, and begin to read. And before you'd turned the second page, you'd realize that the cover, with its promise of carefree canine idylls spent romping through fields of wildflowers, is naught but a THIN TISS-YOU OF LIES LIES LIES.

NOTE: If you're enough of a stickler to consider a piece of information found on PAGE FREAKING THREE of a comic to be a spoiler, you should stop reading here, because we're going to talk about it.

Stargazing Dog begins with police finding a car in the middle of a field of sunflowers, which contains the body of a man who's been dead for about a year. Fair enough, you might think, if you're me. An intriguing mystery, right off the bat!

Found at the man's side: The body of his loyal dog, who has been dead for only a few months and HEY WHOA HOLD UP I WAS NOT INFORMED THERE WOULD BE DEAD FAITHFUL DOGS TO CONTEND WITH HERE. NOT COOL MAN.

The story is told in flashback (well, duh), from the point of view of the dog, who remembers happier, entirely non-dead times with the man. When hard times hit (owner loses job, health and family), man and dog embark on a last, doomed journey of escape, full of bad circumstances and even worse choices.

Throughout, the dog remains steadfastly loyal, his expression largely unchanged from the eager, hopelessly-in-love dog-smile you see there on the cover. That's what Murakami's getting at: the resiliency of the bond tying us to dogs, and them to us, and how it provides a blissfully uncomplicated comfort amid our increasingly complicated lives.

... And, you know, deaths.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise. The Japanese love themselves a good rip-your-heart-out "faithful dog" story, after all. (Should you doubt this, just type the word "Hachiko" into your browser. Normally of course I'd go find and include a link myself, but, um, I don't have time? Yes. Let's go with that. I don't have time. So busy! Busy busy busy!)

The sentiment in Stargazing Dog (and in a backup story about a bookish social worker tasked with burying the man's body, who reflects on his own history with dogs) risks spilling over into sentimentality at every turn, particularly in the dog's credulously happy inner monologue. But Murakami periodically cut the sweetness and keeps things at a low simmer, because he knows he doesn't need to push it; the story's sad string of events — and, not for nothing, its outcome — ensure that the simple fact of the book comes factory-installed with requisite emotional weight.

Stargazing Dog is not an easy book to read, but it's a pleasingly deft and sure one. When you've finished it, the dog curled at your feet may not understand why he's suddenly allowed up on the couch with you, or why you're squeezing him like that, or what's up with that weird, sort of cough-ish sound your throat just made, back there.

But, of course, he doesn't need to. That's the point.