| The premise of 10 Promises To My Dog stems from the "Ten Commandments of Dog Ownership", which was first written in 1989 and has since been passed around the Internet. As the title suggests, the commandments are a set of promises for a dog owner to follow, all written from the perspective of the dog, and they became the inspiration for a novel by Hare Kawaguchi. With the popularity of cute dogs on the silver screen now soaring to a level where it's practically become its own genre in Japanese cinema, Kawaguchi and screenwriter Yoshimitsu Sawamoto quickly adapted the novel to a film just 9 months after the novel's initial release. Thanks to the presence of a cute dog and the rules for a touching dog-human relationship, 10 Promises To My Dog already has enough to attract dog lovers. But does it have enough to make other people care?
The "promise" part of the story refers to a set of promises made up by young heroine Akari's mother, who has fallen ill and has to live in the hospital for an extended period. To compensate for her absence, she secretly gets a dog for Akari, who believes the dog is a stray that wandered into the house one day. The rules are meant to guide Akari in her growing relationship with her dog. However, Akari's mother appears to be creating the rules on the spot, and they end up not having much significance to the central plot. Instead, the film turns out to be about Akari's relationship with her doctor father, his career ambitions and their effect on the family, and the role the dog ends up playing in her life.
Director Matsuhide Motoki, who last made the ineptly-directed adaptation of Gegege no Kitaro, takes a very low-key and matter-of-fact approach to the story. His direction keeps the flow of the story streaming along nicely from one plot point to another. However, the storytelling is sometimes too low-key for its own good, with the director seemingly having too little interest in the story to add any stylistic flair to the film. Instead, it almost feels like he decided to tell the story in a way that any director-for-hire would. However, unlike most directors-for-hire, Motoki doesn't resort to lazily pushing emotional moments with swelling music, and instead lets the characters and the storyline leave their intended effect on the audience.
The most touching aspect of the film revolves around Akari's decade-long relationship with her dog and the dog's various effects on her life. The problem with that is the story is told in such a low-key fashion that only pet owners will most likely identify with Akari's pains and sacrifices of having to give up her social life for a pet. For the rest of us non-pet owners, we are treated instead to digressive subplots such as Akari's romance with a childhood friend (played by Ryo Kase in his adult years). While the dog plays an integral part in the outcome of that storyline, the integration feels forced. Even worse is that sometimes it seems like Akari is exploiting her own pet to save her own romantic life, alienating her from any kind of audience sympathy.
The strongest human relationship in the film is actually between Akari and her father (played by Etsushi Toyokawa). Even though it only plays a large role in the first half of the film, his transformation from an ambitious career doctor to a devoted family man and dog lover is even more affecting and believable than Akari's relationship with her dog. While the dog is undoubtedly cute and adorable (as is the case with most movie pets), Akari's emotional connection to him is never truly felt until the ending, which is emotionally powerful and yet brilliantly understated. However, that moment is only touching because of the emotion of the scene itself, not because the dog's lifelong relationship with Akari has any poignancy, and certainly not because of the ten promises that are supposedly important throughout the film.
Even with Toyokawa's strong, down-to-earth performance as Akari's father, none of the human stars is able to steal the spotlight away from the dog. Rena Tanaka, only showing up in the second half of the film as the adult Akari, barely registers as the central character. Ryo Kase fares even worse, but mostly because of his poorly-written plot device of a character than his acting skills in general. The child actors fare much better, with Mayuko Fukuda giving the best performance as the child Akari. It helps that the first half of the film is the stronger section, hence providing better material for the actors. In fact, the heart of the film really lies in that first half, and would make a solid pet film on its own without any silly commandments or promises. Besides, with a dog this cute, no one with a heart needs to be forced to take care of him anyway. (Kevin Ma, 2008)