The exquisite live-action Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog may be the family film of the year. Quill, also referred to sporadically as Qoo, is a Labrador retriever born with a rare (for their breed) spot on his left side, evoking the shape of a bird. The birthmark seems to reflect some greater enigma: Quill is the only one of a litter of five to be selected for the difficult training required to work as a guide dog, a noble destiny that sees him circulate between a handful of families over the course of his purposeful and seemingly happy life. In this way, Quill is a beacon of light illuminating people’s humanity, revealing aspirations and fears and acting as a conduit for love. Unlike so many meaninglessly anthropomorphized critters dominating the multiplexes of late, Quill is as flesh-and-blood, tear-worthy real as they come, and while the anxieties, joys, discoveries, and partings of life act as signposts throughout its carefully streamlined narrative, the film is less crushingly existential (one naturally recalls Bresson’s Balthazar) than it is gently informative of life’s erratic expectations—not unlike a children’s book written to make death definable, if not quite comprehensible, to the young.
Yôichi Sai’s film, adapted from Ryohei Akimoto and Kengo Ishiguro’s based-on-true-events novel The Life of Quill, the Seeing-Eye Dog, is peppered with expertly rendered, quotidian moments that suggest the wisdom of a life both fully examined and fully lived. The film never announces itself as a tutorial, instead eschewing didacticism by showing its morals in action (humility and patience are behaviors frequently rewarded, and reciprocated), and through thoughtful compositions, an organic sense of humor, and scattered cinematic flourishes (a canine daydream is both enchanting and deeply empathetic, while a photographic device seems lifted straight from Eisenstein), imbuing the narrative with a disarmingly emotional immediacy. Through its modestly diverse cast of characters, among them Quill’s eventual owner, a middle-aged and somewhat cantankerous blind man, Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), who runs a local organization for the handicapped, the film paints an exquisite microcosm of the world and how it should ideally work; we live, we learn, we die, and if we aren’t here to help those around us as best we can, it sure seems like an awful waste. Quill’s life is a modest one, but it’s one worth aspiring to.