November 11, 2015
Stray Dog (1949)
I've been slowly rewatching Akira Kurosawa's films in chronological order, watching his directorial and storytelling styles develop and gradually mature. There have been some excellent films among his first eight works: Sanshiro Sugata, The Men Who Tread in the Tiger's Tail and One Wonderful Sunday. His ninth film, his 1949 police thriller Stray Dog, is Kurosawa's first masterpiece. It is his third collaboration in a row with actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, and here the working relationship pays remarkable dividends. This isn't just an outstanding movie: it's one of the most significant motion pictures ever made.
The most obvious derivative work at which to point is David Fincher's 1995 thriller Seven, which shares so many similarities that it's obvious one film is heavily indebted to the other. It doesn't stop at Seven, however: Stray Dog is the first-ever film to match two cops - one a cynical veteran, the other an upstart rookie - and send them off to fight crime. If you've ever watched a buddy cop movie in your life, there's a chance you have Akira Kurosawa to thank for it.
By his own admission Kurosawa wasn't aiming to invent anything: Stray Dog was developed as a Georges Simenon pastiche, but mutated through the scripting process into its own highly distinctive form. It's a hot summer in Tokyo, and Kurosawa really makes the audience feel it. The actors shine with sweat, and constantly mop their brows with handkerchiefs or greedily drink in bars. In one wonderful moment Shimura's Detective Sato irritably grabs an electric fan from a witness and forces it to turn back and forth between them. The heat gives the film a sense of overwhelming oppression, and an atmosphere far and away beyond anything Kurosawa has previously done. You wind up waiting for the rains to come, which they do - deliberately timed to enhance the film's climax.
In between their investigations Sato and Murakami debate the nature of criminals: are they victims of circumstance, as Murakami believes, or simply bad people, as Sato insists? There's an ambiguity to this films treatment of criminals and crime that really makes Stray Dog stand out. It's post-war setting enhances this, or perhaps directly inspires it: there was widespread poverty in Japan in the late 1940s as well as extensive rationing. Rice ration cards form a key piece of evidence in the plot. An early and deliberately lengthy sequence sees Murakami go undercover as a down-on-his-luck drifter, hoping to meet a illegal gun trader while on the street. He's largely unsuccessful, because there are simply too many people out on the streets for him to make contact with anybody. The location scenes of this prolonged montage were shot by Kurosawa's assistant director Ishiro Honda, who would go on to direct films for Toho himself - including Godzilla and The Mysterians.
Technically the film sees Kurosawa employ his entire bag of cinematic tricks: rapid Hollywood-style cutting, montages, complex tracking shots, low and high angles, and so on. It's by far the most visually interesting film so far in this rewatch.
Kurosawa himself was not an enormous fan of Stray Dog, finding it technically strong but emotionally cold. In my opinion he's under-selling his own work. At the film's centre there's a remarkably emotional performance by Toshiro Mifune. When his gun is stolen he panics. When it begins to be used in violent robberies and murders he despairs. When he learns the criminal he is chasing shares so many similarities with him he sympathises. It's a great performance of a great character.
It's a great film.
Akira Kurosawa Reviews
1943: Sanshiro Sugata (review)
1944: The Most Beautiful (review)
1945: Sanshiro Sugata Part II (review)
1945: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (review)
1946: No Regrets for Our Youth (review)
1947: One Wonderful Sunday (review)
1948: Drunken Angel (review)
1949: The Quiet Duel (review)
1949: Stray Dog