Week-end Book Review: Taka-chan and I: A Dog’s Journey to Japan by Runcible by Betty Jean Lifton, photography by Eikoh Hosoe

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Review as part of our current theme  of Cats and Dogs in Multicultural Children’s Books

Betty Jean Lifton, photography by Eikoh Hosoe,
Taka-chan and I: A Dog’s Journey to Japan by Runcible
New York Review Children’s Collection, 2012 (reprint of 1967 edition)

Ages: 5+

Illustrated with luminous black-and-white photographs by the art photographer Eikoh Hosoe and inspired by her experiences in 1960s Japan, Betty Jean Lifton’s wry and witty 1967 Taka-chan and I, is, happily, back in print.

Hosoe’s photographs of adorable 5-year-old Taka-chan with Runcible, Lifton’s Weimaraner-narrator, evoke a fabled timelessness. (Children and parents may recognize his name as Edward Lear’s invented adjective.) Runcible lived in Japan with Lifton and her husband, psychiatrist and writer Robert Jay Lifton. His story begins on Cape Cod (US), where a particularly enthusiastic dig in the sand takes him far underground with no way home. At long last he discovers that he’s dug his way to Japan. The photograph of him emerging from the sand nose-to-nose with Taka-chan, bowing from the hip to greet him, is priceless.

Taka-chan is being detained by the Black Dragon. Ominous images of girl and dog in his shadowy “palace” create suspense; the dragon is later revealed to be an elaborate sculpture (embodying, folk-tale fashion, the dragon spirit). He’s peeved that Taka-chan’s disloyal fishing village has ceased to feed dragons who protect the fishermen, but if by sundown Runcible places a white flower before the most loyal person in Japan, Taka-chan will be free. Runcible negotiates: Taka-chan escorts him on his mission.

Off they go, Taka-chan in a little straw hat and pinafore dress. In busy Tokyo, they are separated. Runcible looks for her in the Emperor’s gardens, then gets fed at a sushi shop. A deer tells him the most loyal person in the land is Hachiko, the dog who returned daily to Shibuya Station for a decade after his master’s death and whose statue commemorates his loyalty.* Dog and girl are reunited, flower is bestowed, girl is released, and eventually Runcible loyally digs his way home to his own master.

Lifton’s story is a delightful take on the traditional Japanese folk stories she loved; Hosoe’s images imbue her text with magic. Taka-chan, in a summer kimono, feeding Runcible with chopsticks at a formal low table in a tatami room, is unforgettable, her gesture and expression as ingenuous as Runcible’s soulful look. A photograph of the author, photographer and dog at the back of the book accompanies amusing brief biographies of each. Taka-chan and I is a classic to be cherished for generations.

Charlotte Richardson
December 2012

*Hachiko’s story became a Japanese film in 1987; a 2009 adaptation for American audiences starred Richard Gere.