Stray Dog

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1949
  • Japanese
  • 122 min
October 13, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

In Toshirô Mifune’s third feature with the director he plays a rookie detective named Murakami who has his pistol stolen on a bus. Afraid of losing his job he decides to look for it, an arduous task in postwar Tokyo made more difficult by the scant evidence he has. He doesn’t know what the thief looks like, but he does know he was abetted by a woman. Murakami finds this woman and she instructs him to investigate the black-market slums which he proceeds to do disguised as a pauperized war veteran. He discovers a lead, but during the investigation a number of assaults on innocent female victims takes place and Murakami suspects it was his lifted pistol used in the crimes. Recovering a bullet that he lodged into a tree stump during target practice, Murakami proves that the pistol is indeed his and this knowledge casts a long shadow over the detective (and the narrative) who feels culpable for the activities of his stray gun.

Stray Dog is American film-noir through and through. Many consider it to be Kurosawa’s first masterpiece and I think this has much to do with its neorealist environs and consummate black and white photography. Kurosawa thinks little of his film, remarking that it’s “too technical,” that it contains “all that technique and not one real thought in it.” It is a technical film and a triumphant one. The pacing of this film is incredible, not unlike a Hitchcock thriller. We are cast into the drama instantly. The opening scene has Murakami reporting his stolen gun before we see in flashback how it was done. This effectively involves us from the get-go and makes compelling the target practice scene and the bus ride which otherwise would make the film develop too slowly. Murakami finds a lead and follows it; he literally tails the thief’s female accomplice all day and night. The narrative is intriguing at this point, but most palpably engrossing are the silent film techniques that comprise the next lengthy block of the first half.

These sequences both captivate and square away the film’s primary dialectic which will become more apparent toward the end. It’s a hot day. Murakami, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, walks the sweaty downtown streets attempting to elicit a gun. But Kurosawa captures this in the most remarkable way. He took all of his principal photography and second-unit stuff (which must have been hours and hours of film stock) and cranked out a hypnotic, expressionist montage: dissolves, double exposure, silhouettes, handheld shots, point-of-view, close-ups, devious glares, daytime, nightlife, grimy surfaces, dirty faces, sun beams pouring through reed-thatched ceilings etc.. These sequences are so long and communicate so much visual information it would be futile to attempt a chronology in print. It’s no accident that Murakami chooses a soldier’s uniform. We learn later that it’s his. Murakami has suppressed his war experiences and feels somehow compelled to resolve his feelings. In so doing, he not only follows in his thief’s footsteps, but in the invisible corridor of reality forever precluded by the choices he made. His chosen profession means fighting against the very person he might have become which leads to an incongruent degree of passion for a case that might otherwise seem a trifle.

The location photography of the undercover sequences in the heat of postwar Tokyo was handled by second-unit photographer Ishirô Honda (who would go on to direct Godzilla in 1954, a film more fundamentally potent than Kurosawa’s own H-Bomb paranoiac of the following year, I Live in Fear). The director loved his work on this shoot, so much so that he kept nearly everything Honda shot in the final cut, to the film’s benefit. Heat is the most obvious motif, pervading every inch of the film and longtime collaborator Asakazu Nakai does his part, framing whorls of dust underfoot, sun-baked tire treads, glinting surfaces, congested crowds, squinting faces etc.. The film’s title sequence shows a dog panting from the heat, section chief Sato (Takashi Shimura) and others constantly wipe their brow, all are enfeebled by its pervasive influence.

Kurosawa began writing this film as a novel, modeled on the detective style of Georges Simenon, before adapting his own novel into a screenplay. The fact that a dangerous series of events is impelled by the theft of Murakami’s potency by a female, and the crimes are all assaults on innocent females couches this film firmly in American noir traditions. But Murakami is a petulant child, obsessed with his colt to the point of annoying his partner and his superior officers. He’s too green and too hot-headed to solve this puzzle by himself. That’s where Sato comes in, playing the cool mentor who keeps his younger partner from going astray and gets what he wants through a mixture of insouciance, humor and flattery. Kurosawa bides his time in the middle of the film to some good effect: Murakami follows his initial quarry to a bar after dark where she stops to buy her pursuer a beer before kicking up her feet to admire the starry firmament (of the Shin Toho backlot); some not so: long, unnecessary sequences of a baseball game which Honda the gun dealer is attending, the detectives hoping to apprehend him at its conclusion. Kurosawa eventually ratchets up the suspense and turns this into an efficient thriller, but on the way this is several films in one. In a way this is closest to Kurosawa’s later pulp-derived film High and Low in its multifarious construction and the treatment given to the hero and the villain.

It’s debatable how much responsibility Kurosawa had for his film’s titles, but they are usually apt as this one is. An interesting thing about Stray Dog is that it’s not at all clear to whom the title refers. There are at least three. The first is the pistol, having been stolen and used for malign purposes rather than its intended police utility. Yusa, the man who eventually uses the pistol to this effect, is referred to by the protagonists as both a stray dog and a rabid dog. Its noteworthy that Kurosawa injected certain details into his screenplay in an effort to humanize his villain, such as Yusa’s killing of a cat and his confession that he’s as worthless as one. By implication, if Yusa is a cat then Murakami is the dog pursuing him, a metaphor so trite that it undermines an entire film spent trying to liken cop and killer. This is not the implication; it simply tells us of a man anguished and desperate, not unlike the man Murakami might have been. It also signals as things heat up that the killer has come unhinged. With our realization that he too is a veteran who had his belongings stolen upon returning from the war the doubling motif is complete.

This has to have one of the greatest all time endings to a film of its kind and perhaps the best scene Kurosawa ever staged. The expected catharsis of the rain that has finally come down in cataracts from the sky instead precipitates Sato’s near-fatal wounding, and Murakami’s total loss of control over his emotions. The girl tips him off and Murakami runs off to confront Sato’s assailant at the train station, where he lights a cig and spends some moments trying to figure out which of the young men waiting for their train is Yusa. Murakami’s inner monologue is given in narration as he repeats the salient facts of Yusa’s appearance. As he repeats the phrase, “young man, late twenties, white-linen suit” he may as well be describing himself. He figures it out and Yusa (an almost unrecognizable Isao Kimura in his first role, better known as the young Katsushiro of Seven Samurai) bolts into the country. Murakami forgets that he’s unarmed, but gives chase anyway, eventually cornering the perp in the woods.

They stand staring at one another for some tense moments, Yusa looking like a frightened lamb with Murakami’s colt. Suddenly Mozart can be heard on a piano. Yusa squeezes off a round into Murakami’s arm. Blood trickles down the detective’s fingers and onto a sunflower. The music stops. It’s coming from the open window of a nearby house. The woman playing it thinks she hears a noise, inspects the purview of her window, yawns, then resumes her playing. Predator and prey are squared off again; Murakami is bleeding, but continues lurching on. Yusa trips, falls backwards and unintentionally fires off his last two rounds into the branches above. A long, physically exhausting chase ensues through the forest, over pond and fallen tree, into the thickets, the mud, an open field. It’s difficult to tell the two men apart as they hurtle their bodies at one another. Yusa gives up, collapsing from exhaustion. Murakami has just the energy to cuff him. He examines his colt to reassure himself then he too collapses. The two men are prone next to each other, their muscles writhing. They are one in the same. The setting recalls some distant battlefield. The Philippines perhaps. A line of school children emerges in the distance, but they can’t see the two young men in the bush or vice versa. The children are singing a lullaby. Yusa opens his eyes to the sky and begins to sob violently.

It’s notable the similarities between this final showdown and the one of Drunken Angel: ugly, awkward, dirty, physically and emotionally exhausting. The physical contests of Seven Samurai too are approached in this way, especially the final scenes in the rain and mud. Later more heroic, crystalline efforts would become the norm with The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Red Beard. However, three of these are basically comedies with the action of Red Beard confined to a poorly conceived nostalgia trip. It’s precisely the lack of heroics, the pathos of a killer, the political awareness, the realistic environs and human concerns that set Stray Dog apart from its era.

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