But Kinako is not just about the Labrador in training, having been chosen by Kyoko Mochizuki (Kaho) amongst a group of dogs at Bamba's police dog training school, where she embarks on a new career given her childhood aspiration to be like her dad Ryoichi (Kenichi Endo), who himself is a police dog trainer with probably the best search dog in the force called Elf, coincidentally also of the same breed. Nursing the sickly Kinako back to health, this film is also about Kyoko on her quest to fulfill her childhood ambition to train dogs and help people, and most of the narrative goes into training the trainer, although the techniques of Seijiro Bamba (Yasufumi Terawaki) are unorthodox at best.
In some ways this film shatters the myth about teaching dogs some tricks, since most of the responsibility and success of training come from both the handler/training and the dog, who mostly takes the cue from the human it associates itself with. If there's a large spectrum of tests to go through before passing out as a qualified search and rescue dog, this film doesn't show anything other than an obstacle course to conquer, and a scent test in which the dog has to score 75%. Naturally with a rookie trainer and a dog who likes to play and have fun, possessing some short attention span issues, spell out the formula for a zero to hero theme, complete with notions of never giving up on each other, having to overcome the odds and the naysayers, and through the course develop a strong bond between (wo)man and canine.
As with all dog movies, director Yoshinori Kobayashi never lets up any opportunity for close ups to Kinako's face, especially those involving his puppy days, capturing kitsch moments of dog antics that are sure to excite puppy lovers into wanting to own something themselves. And through Kinako's bumbling first test attempt, the media plays up that hilarious moment and soon enough, a legion of fans is formed as it becomes a mascot and gains mini celebrity status, gaining popularity with the townsfolk, and while not explicitly mentioned in the film, help settle mounting bills that Bamba's training school face.
Running almost two hours in length, some subplots found its way to the film to bloat it up, which in most cases are unnecessary. For instance, the story arc involving Bamba's protégé Wataru Tashiro (Yusuke Yamamoto) who begins brightly as the heir apparent to his skills and business, but family commitment meant to drop off and head back to his father's Udon shop. It was left hanging and not resolved satisfactorily, and could have been omitted altogether since it doesn't tell us much of Wataru, nor for that instance, Bamba himself, relegating him to being a caricature and nothing more, along with cast members playing his family.
Scenes get assembled in rote style to elicit maximum emotional responses from the audience, with Kaho turning on her charms as Kyoko, who learns the lesson of not finishing what one has started. Narrative development throws up no surprises and you're able to stay one step ahead all the way, even with what would be the final climatic piece involving a search and rescue, you'll just know how everything will turn out in a positive manner, and how everything would fall into place. To balance this up, the final scene was executed quite clumsily as a counter-balance in order to keep everything open and suspenseful, but fell flat since again, it's typical.
Still, you can't deny the fact that dog lovers will likely make a beeline for this film. It has a unique selling point in making it a zero to hero film about a weak Labrador finally overcoming challenges to become a bona fide police dog (or does it?), but unfortunately this potential doesn't get exploited to the max, and what you'll get instead is yet another usual film focused on the cutesy portions of man's best friend.