WOONSOCKET – For six weeks, the metal statue was hidden in the janitor's broom closet.
“It was a big secret,” say Robert Pilkington, principal of the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. “Very few people knew about it.”
But the secret's out now, and soon Hachiko – or at least a life-size bronze likeness of the famous dog – will be appearing at a train station near you, the mirror image of the original on the other side of the globe.
In case you missed all the earlier hoopla, the Depot Building was the defining set piece for Hollywood icon Richard Gere's 2009 film about the celebrated canine. “Hachiko,” the film, was based on the true story of an Akita in Japan that used to greet his owner as he stepped off the train from work every day at the same time – and continued to do so for a decade after the man died suddenly at work. Hachiko lived as a stray and kept up his sadly futile routine until the day he, too, died.
The Japanese were so impressed by Hachiko's enduring loyalty that they erected a statue to him outside Shibuya station in 1934.
Pilkington says it was Mayor Leo Fontaine who came up with the idea of erecting a replica statue of Hachiko, a project that would serve as part tourist attraction, part tribute to the creation of the film at the Depot Building, a former Providence & Worcester stop that was transformed into the “Bedford Falls” train station for the movie. He just took the ball and ran with it.
At first Pilkington considered letting students in the art program create the replica out of plaster or clay and having the model casted in bronze at a foundry. “That would have been way too complicated, and it would have taken too long,” he says.
In the end, Pilkington found what he was looking for where everyone else finds that special, one-of-a-kind item – on eBay. With the approval of Beacon's board of trustees, he expended $1,950 from the school's operating budget for the Hachiko statue.
The shiny, brownish figure weighs 90 pounds and stands about three feet high. Cast in the sitting position, with an expression of vague longing in his eyes, the statue appears, so far as Pilkington can tell, like a perfect clone of the Hachiko that patiently waits outside Shibuya station in Japan. Pilkington says it was created by an artist from New Jersey who visited Japan and was so impressed by the original that he came home to make one of his own.
“It appears to be an exact replica,” said Pilkington, as he perused laptop images of the real thing on YouTube in an office at the Beacon school.
Pilkington wanted to make a surprise gift of the statue to the city, so he kept it hidden after it arrived in a shipping crate a few weeks ago. He chose to unveil the statue Thursday night at Savini's Restaurant, as Pilkington himself was being honored by the Rotary Club with its annual vocational service award.
The city, says Pilkington, envisions the Hachiko project as a permanent tribute to the city's role in the movie and as a magnet for outsiders – maybe even a few visitors from Japan. It's no secret, says Pilkington, that Boston is a hub for Japanese visitors who often venture as close to Woonsocket as the Wrentham Village shopping center during their excursions to the Northeast.
Given that Gere's film, a remake of the 1987 Japanese original, made $48 million in Japan – more than it earned in the U.S. – Pilkington says it's not such a far-fetched idea to think that Japanese tourists might detour to Woonsocket for a glimpse of the American version of the Shibuya icon while they're in the area.
Fontaine agrees. From similarly tiny seeds the Museum of Work and Culture has developed solid ties with the foreign consul of Quebec which have served as a significant stimulus for tourism, the mayor says.
“It's not as hokey as some people would make it out to be,” says the mayor. “I know some people will say we've got all these other problems, but we can't get so caught up in them we stop ourselves from taking pride in something this simple as dog.”
Fontaine says the statue will also focus attention on a part of the downtown strip – the middle – that seems to be having the most trouble pulling itself up by the bootstraps. The poles of the Main Street axis have their well-established economic drivers – the Stadium Theatre on the north, Museum of Work and Culture on the south.
“If we can start drawing some focus on the center, it's a good thing,” says the mayor. “It's an additional feature that we can offer to draw in some people and take some pride in our city.”
The Hachiko project has the endorsement of Robert Billington, the director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, says Fontaine, and the city is already working with the state Department of Transportation to gain permission to erect the statue. DOT owns the Depot Building, which currently serves as the headquarters of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission.
The city must also embark on a fundraising campaign to erect a base for the statue and figure out a way to anchor it securely to the base so that it is safe from vandals, says the mayor. If all goes according to plan, the statue will be formally dedicate in 2012, on April 8 – a day that is commemorated annually in Japan as “Hachiko Day.”
For now, Hachiko is sitting proudly in the main office at the Beacon school, the expression of confused longing forever etched on his metallic snout.
Mary Hoyle, the school nurse, can hardly bring herself to look at him.
“I watched that movie,” she says. “It made me cry.”