From Wikipedia: The Tibetan Dog is a 2011 Chinese/Japanese animated film directed by Masayuki Kojima, co-produced by Madhouse and China Film Group Corporation. It premiered at 51st Annecy Film Festival in June 2011. In this film, a young boy named Tenzing leaves for Tibet after his mother passes away to live with his Father in the prairies and encounters a true friend in form of a golden Tibetan Mastiff.
I admit: I cried during The Tibetan Dog. It is an enjoyable film with beautiful animated depictions of Tibet, a unique cast of Tibetan characters, and a heart-warming friendship between a lost city boy and a wild dog.
Tenzin (subtitled as Tianjin in this youtube version; from here on out, the names in parenthesis will be those from this version) is a city boy who recently lost his mother and now must travel back to Tibet to be reunited with his father, Lhakpa (LaGeBa), who lives as a prairie doctor.
Tenzin’s parents met while studying medicine in the city but shortly after his birth, Tenzin went to live in the city with his mother while his father stayed behind in the prairie.
For Tenzin, life on the prairie, is not something he’s used to. He’s Tibetan, but his skin is visibly paler than those of the people he meets in Tibet, and he struggles with the food, the traditional chuba, and his new task as sheep-herder. He gets bullied by the local boys, including Norbu (Nuopu), the grandson of the local “medicine woman.”
Most narratives in mainstream society feature Tibetans as “backward” people who have never left their rural villages, but the reality is thousands of Tibetans have been forcibly relocated from their pastures and forbidden to continue their nomadic way of life. Two Tibetans meeting in the city while studying Western medicine, and then returning to Tibet with the intention of staying, is a narrative that you might actually find in the 21st century—many Tibetans that I’ve spoken to wish to use their exile as a springboard to knowledge that they can then share with their families and societies. They want to learn medicine, to be able to practice in their hometowns, or they want to become teachers so that they can return and educate future generations of Tibetans.
Tenzin’s mother returned to the city—the food and weather made her uncomfortable, which suggests that perhaps she was raised in the city. Tenzin’s father, on the other hand, seems quite comfortable living by himself in a tent.
Having Tenzin return to Tibet is a sparkle of hope. Perhaps one day, all Tibetans can return to their homeland, although for those who were born elsewhere, it might be uncomfortable for them at first. Tenzin, in a sense, can be seen as a stand-in for an exiled Tibetan, a Tibetan away who, in the middle of a personal tragedy, finds himself in an alien homeland and now has to figure out who he is.
The film features a lot of lore surrounding Tibetans—the local “medicine woman” who is cheating local Tibetans out of paying prized gold coins for phony fixes for everything from hair loss to sad love lives, and there’s even a gang of Tibetan robbers who dash around on horses intimidating people.
I was suspicious about how the film was going to represent Tibetans, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, there are Tibetan robbers, but they are not portrayed as evil, heartless, or barbaric men. The “medicine woman” puts herself in a dangerous situation when it would have been easier to stay out of it. Even the two main female characters (not including Tenzin’s mother, who we only see in flashbacks) have moments when their actions help to drive the plot.
The main action of the film starts when Tenzin is out sheep-herding by himself for the first time. He nearly gets eaten by a bear when a golden Tibetan mastiff comes to his rescue. The mastiff is new to the prairie and the locals suspect that he is the cause of the animal and human deaths that started plaguing the prairie.
It’s jarring watching an anime featuring Tibetan characters speaking in Chinese. I don’t think there is a Tibetan version out there, but I hope there will be one eventually. There are so few representations of Tibetans in the media, and those that do exist are unrealistic, orientalist, and dated. This film offers a fresh perspective on Tibetan culture.