No, this was not on the list I posted last week which presented a series of summer-type movies that I’d be reviewing over the next couple of months. Still, I hadn’t seen it in a while and I think it possesses at least some of the qualities one would expect from a summer movie: some cops, some drama, some chases, and sweltering heat!
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
On a scorching hot summer day, rookie cop Murakami (the indelible Toshiro Mifune, in one of his earlier silver screen roles) has his not so trusty Colt pistol stolen right under his nose while riding on the tramway. Panic and guilt surge through his slim body upon realizing this embarrassing and grim reality. Hopping off the streetcar, Murakami takes notice of a suspicious looking chap who also just descended from the vehicle. Under the blazing sun, the officer gives chase to the young hoodlum through the dusty streets, but to no avail. Disappointed and ashamed, he returns to headquarters and confesses his situation. While visibly shaken by this event, Murakami’s will and resolve in recuperating the weapon carries through a fascinating journey through the world of petty criminals, a world that shall open his eyes to some far greater realities about post-war Japan.
For some of you who read my ‘100 favourite films list’ from last year, you might recall that I had Stray Dog ranked very high. One of Japan’s greatest film directors (if not the greatest as some put it, plain and simple), Kurosawa, who also had a hand in this film’s script, was the force and often progenitor behind several films which today are heralded as classics. Seven Samurai, Yojmbo, Ran, Rashomon, Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress, these films and more have garnered endless praise over the past few decades. I’ve had the privilege of seeing but maybe a dozen Kurosawa films, but it always been his Stray Dog that captured my arrested my thoughts and senses the most. Almost everything in this movie, from the acting, the editing, to the camera angles, score and pacing has me nodding in approval. Such was the case when I first watched it a little over a year ago, and such was the case yet again as I watched just yesterday. There is something very basic to what Kurosawa does in the film, and I think it is the to the film’s credit. The samurai warriors, castles and armies are still a few years away. There are no kingdoms to save, family legacies to fight for or princess to protect here. The script serves a straightforward and simple story, but one that hides within it thematic complexities that had some serious heft to the movie.
Kurasawa’s directing and the script he is working with propel the film to greater heights than what the viewer appears to be given on the surface. Detective loses pistol, he then vows to search for as long as it takes to recover it with the help of an older partner named Sato (the great Takashi Shimura). Through his trial and error filled adventure, he comes to better understand the world he lives in and his job, or at least a better appreciation of how they function, cruel as they may be. He is young, perhaps a bit on the idealistic side, and certainly stubborn. His story transpires in the few years following the Second World War, a misadventure for which Japan paid a hefty price. While Stray Dog refuses to become a didactic thesis on the war that just passed and its after effects on the Japanese at large, it does venture into some interesting thoughts and possible after effects on certain people, more specifically the young men who partook in the battles and who have returned home. As Murakami and Sato discuss one evening while sharing dinner at the older man’s home, the protagonist and the crook Yusa who possesses his weapon are both product of the ‘après-guerre’ generation, or post-war generation if you will. The war undoubtedly had specific consequences on each of their psyches and philosophies, and one simple event (a stolen bag in the case of both) led to alarmingly different life altering choices for each man. Such dramatic choices made by both, with one, Murakami, opting to serve for the greater good as a detective, and the other, Yusa, recoiling away from honesty and hard work and choosing rather a life of petty crime. I enjoyed the duality of their roles tremendously and thought it pertinent how both men, while not operating on the same level in terms of lifestyle, are products of the same environment. To complicate the dynamics a bit more are the continuous hints that there might exist a softer side to Yusa (who the audience actually doesn’t see until very late in the story). The hoodlum appears to be committing some of his crimes for the sake of a beautiful dancer at a local club, the Blue Bird. He has committed some vile acts, murder being the most heinous, but by the time he and Murakami end their ultimate confrontation, we see that our hero has come face to face with a man who is, in many ways, just as fragile as himself. There are moments in the film, whether through the dialogue or the acting, that may lack a degree of subtlety but generally this theme works magic throughout the plot.
There are some more ideas explored in Stray Dog, such as the juxtaposition of Murakami’s and Sato’s philosophies on criminals and crime in general. Murakami at times feels sympathy towards his prey, understanding that the crook’s actions may result from things beyond his control. Sato denies any sort of pity or empathy towards those he locks away. That isn’t to say he is unkind towards them. There is in fact an interrogation scene in which Sato and an inmate are happily sharing cigarettes and popsicles together, but ultimately he does his duty (putting away the bad people) and moves on to the next case. The intricacies of petty crime are also explored in the early stages of the plot, with Murakami venturing into the seedier locations of the city in order to retrieve his fire arm. The organizing which makes all these crimes possible is quite intricate, with one thread always leading to another. The journey to simply retrieve his darn Colt takes Murakami to a great many places around the city where he faces a surprising variety of dishonest and slimy characters. Very few are noble, most wouldn’t even give him the time of day if he asked for it. This exploration of criminal world, a specific portion of the criminal world (we aren’t talking big time gangsters, this is small time stuff here) is deftly handled by Kurasawa. The heat wave which beats down on everybody adds another element to the entire process. Beads of sweat are shown dripping down everyone’s tired faces. Each step and simple movement seems to require more effort than usual for our heroes and villains. People may feel more glum when it rains, but is it really all that fun when simply taking a step out your front door has you greeted by a heat wave so thick it feels like a brick crashing into your face? I didn’t think so. Just as the case for the stolen Colt heats up, so do the streets (quite literally) where crime never rests. It’s a terrific framing device, one that would be adopted by other directors in the decades to come, most notably American Spike Lee in his seminal Do the Right Thing.
Should much time be spent on the performances, especially the leads? If you have seen any films which featured actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, then you already know that both are more than solid and always up to the task of inhabiting whatever characters the scripts demands. There is something interesting at play here however in that not only are the philosophies of each character different, but so is the overall behaviour of each, and therefore the acting style of both performers. Murakami being the younger, more gun ho detective, Mifune puts some intensity into the role. Throughout his career Mifune has played a great number of characters with very intense personalities, and this earlier role does possess some of that raw energy he is well known for. Interestingly enough, it isn’t only fury or anger along that drive, but also a deep sense of shame, something which struck a chord with me personally. Alongside him is the classy Takashi Shimura who showcases far more restraint, coolness and clever wisdom than his younger counterpart, whom he takes under his wing to solve the frustrating case. This dynamic would be used many times in film again and this specific example of it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the very best.
I could on some more about the qualities of Stray Dog. The editing (specifically the ‘wiping’ from one scene to the next that would become famous with Star Wars), the fluid camera pans which lend several scenes great pacing and dynamism, the supporting cast, etc. Stray Dog is the result of a master filmmaker and storyteller at the top of his game, period. I don’t think I could ever put it more succinctly than that. The only thing left is for you to watch the movie.
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5 months ago