Photo/IllutrationThe “Stargazing Dog” manga was made into a movie starring Toshiyuki Nishida. Author Takashi Murakami said sunflowers in the story represent inevitable death after the struggle for life. (c) Stargazing Dog production committee in 2011. (Provided by Toho Marketing Co.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A manga titled “Stargazing Dog” starts with the discovery of the skeletal remains of the protagonist who lost his job and family and died in an isolated field with his dog at his feet.

However, Takashi Murakami, 54, author of the manga, said this is not a tragic story.

“He was not unhappy at all,” Murakami said of the protagonist.

Murakami objects to characterizations of people who die alone as sad “losers in life” who have not prepared for death.

Of course, the author says, people who do not want to die alone should receive help and support. What he objects to is the classification that all isolated deaths indicate the person has lived an unhappy life.

INSPIRED BY NEWS ON BILLBOARD

Murakami got the story idea decades ago when he saw a news flash on an electric billboard on a building near Osaka Station.

“Man’s body found in abandoned car. Body of dog found at man’s feet,” it said.

“I didn’t understand why the presence of the dog was included in the limited space on the billboard,” he said. “It remained in my heart.”

Murakami’s parents divorced during his elementary school days. He said he did not lead a fortunate life in terms of money and family relationships, and he always felt that he was a “rootless wanderer” in his youth.

But his dog was always loyal to him. He said his relationship with his pet may have been the reason he was interested in the dog mentioned in the billboard notice.

Murakami said he thought about the dead man in the car. “Even if he was isolated, he may not have been pitiful. Depending on his state of mind, he might have been very satisfied with his life.”

He wrote about these feelings in his manga, “Stargazing Dog,” which was released in 2009, a year after the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered a global financial crisis.

The story centers on a middle-aged man, known only as “Otoosan” (father), who has a pre-existing condition. He is not particularly smart, but he is a diligent worker who is always willing to help weaker people.

He loses his job in corporate downsizing, and then his wife and daughter leave him.

With only his beloved dog, “Happy,” as company, he continues his life’s journey in his car. When the car runs out of gas, he dies in a field, but first erases all evidence of his identity. His dog warmly watches his master die and stays with the corpse.

The manga became known as a book that makes people cry. In response to complaints that the content was too sorrowful, Murakami published a sequel themed on revitalization and hope.

The series sold more than 500,000 books in total.

In 2011, “Stargazing Dog” was made into a movie starring Toshiyuki Nishida. Murakami said he was stunned by the audience response.

Many viewers felt pity over the isolated death or criticized Otoosan for committing a “slow-motion suicide.”

“Was he such a bad person that he should be criticized?” Murakami said. “It is strange to dismiss him by saying he was responsible for what happened.”

The author feels society has unfairly attached labels to those who die alone and those who die surrounded by loved ones.

WINNERS, LOSERS OF LIFE

“The ‘winners’ might be the group of people who can disperse the risks and avoid living in isolation,” said Midori Kotani, 50, president of a research center for senior citizens who specializes in clinical thanatology.

Eight years ago, Kotani, who also teaches at Rikkyo Second Stage College in Tokyo, lost her husband.

His death spurred Kotani to form a group to help people maintain their lifestyles after their partners die.

“If you want to avoid isolation or a lonely death, it is important to connect to people other than family members who can be relied upon when you are still vigorous,” Kotani said.

Akihisa Kono, 50, who runs a surgical hospital in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, saw many lonely death cases when he was a medical examiner in the prefecture.

Kono said that Japan’s wealthy and convenient society helps to free us from the troubles of meeting people face-to-face.

But, he added, “The communication skills of people are worsening regardless of age, which widens the disconnect within a community and between generations and leads to isolation.”

Since the first half of the 1990s, the number of “muen botoke,” people who die alone and go unnoticed, even by their children or relatives, has been rising in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The number started surging after fiscal 2005.

Alarmed by the trend, the city four years ago started supporting “Shukatsu” (preparing for death) for people who live alone and are financially strapped.

Kazuyuki Kitami, a social worker at the welfare division of Yokosuka city, said changes in society are fueling the trend in lonely deaths.

“It is not about losing bonds but rather the environment has made it easier to sever bonds,” Kitami said.

He said sharp social changes can be traced back to two time periods: in 1990, when the average family size shrank to three members or fewer, and the 2000s, when the use of cellphones spread.

People now have fewer immediate relatives to connect with, and human relationships are maintained chiefly through smartphones. Those who find themselves with few real-life connections may die alone, and their families or relatives might not care, he said.

“What generates such an atmosphere that even relatives don’t receive the remains? I think we need to think about that question,” Kitami said.

WAS HE UNHAPPY?

Murakami said people who feel isolated and want help should receive support from municipal offices or within their communities.

“I think that is how society should be,” he said.

However, he noted that Otoosan, who had nobody to talk with other than his dog even before he lost his job, never felt the need to ask anyone for help.

Murakami said if Otoosan had any faults, they might have been his lack of interest in his family and his future, and that he didn’t want to be bothered by changes in society and his family.

But can Otoosan be considered a pitiful and miserable loser in life?

Murakami said he doesn’t think so.

“Otoosan cut ties with society by himself and enjoyed his life until his death beside his beloved dog,” the author said. “He must have been happy.”