Sit, Stay…Survive!

The real-life hairy adventure behind Disney's new polar epic

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LASSIE WOULDN’T HAVE LASTED A WEEK. Walt Disney Pictures’ February 17 release Eight Below, helmed by Alive director Frank Marshall, tells the story of a team of sled dogs who live through a brutal Antarctic winter after the scientists who brought them in have to evacuate. Are these canine Shackletons too Disney to be true? Nope. The film is inspired by the story of two sled dogs who survived 11 months alone in Antarctica nearly 50 years ago to become Japanese national heroes.

In February 1958, Sakhalian huskies Jiro and Taro were left behind at Japan’s Showa research station when dwindling supplies forced the research team to abandon the base. A new team was expected to arrive on an icebreaker within a week, so the two dogs, along with 13 others, were left chained to a stake in the ice. “We thought it would only be a few days,” recalls Tokyo-based Yoshio Yoshida, 75, a geographer who was to be the dogsled driver for the replacement crew, “but our ship was stuck in pack ice, and we had to return to Tokyo. I didn’t even imagine that any of the dogs would survive.”

But when a new team finally arrived, in January 1959, Jiro and Taro—who, along with five other dogs that didn’t make it, had escaped their chains—were there to greet them, apparently having learned to hunt penguins and scavenge seal droppings. The two were front-page news in Japan, a country obsessed with stories of stoic perseverance. After their deaths, they became stuffed museum displays and were memorialized in a statue next to Tokyo Tower. A 1983 movie about their ordeal, Nankyoku Monogatari (released in the U.S. as Antarctica), was the highest-grossing film in Japanese history at the time.

Miraculous though the story was, expect a different ending from the folks at Disney; 13 dead dogs do not a family movie make. “The original story might be too much for younger audiences to handle,” says Eight Below screenwriter David DeGilio. “I’m happy to say that part of our adaptation process was allowing more dogs to survive.”