Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
If you come to this already familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s best-known works — Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ran, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, etc. — then what’s first likely to throw you about Stray Dog is its contemporary setting. Contemporary to Japan in the years just after the war, but so much subtler in its specifics (in comparison to the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, among others, from the same period) that in many ways it feels like it could be right this minute, just about anywhere. As with the director’s later crime drama masterwork High and Low and his chronicle of infrastructural frustrations Ikiru, you could make a claim that the film’s decidedly middle-class perspective and universally applicable events, problems and emotions mark it as more anonymous and sanitized than his more distinctly Japanese period films, and this was something he took critical flack for in his home country for decades. To my mind, though, Kurosawa’s films about modern life mark him simply as a master storyteller, whose sensibility not only had no cultural or ethnic boundaries but whose elastic, varied interests could encompass American crime films and novels as easily as Shakespeare, ancient Japanese lore or the short fiction of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
Film noir didn’t have a name yet when Kurosawa made Stray Dog, which was one of his first films to receive widespread renown, predating his international breakthrough Rashomon; but the gritty thrillers of Hollywood directors like Jules Dassin, Robert Siodmak and Edward Dmytryk were cited as a key inspiration to this rain-soaked nightmare of guilt and innocence set in the miserable streets of a nation ravaged by the often invisible but still inescapable effects of a soul-destroying war. There might be little real-world analogue in the apathy expressed by American noir, which always seemed more a prediction of the mood of the decades afterward than of the country in the throes of war and rejuvenation, but there was considerably more in the earlier film whose sensibility is reflected most of all in Stray Dog, Fritz Lang’s M, which in the horrid environment of falling-apart Weimar Germany defines the graphic and minute explication of police work as well as the dour, unforgiving mood of a criminal underworld that feels palpable and suffocating in all the ways that Josef von Sternberg’s in the 1920s felt downright grotesque, fanciful. Kurosawa would later say that Dog didn’t reflect much passionate thought on his part, and maybe that’s a credible line of reasoning if you view and experience it on a purely superficial level — in which guise it would be perfectly enjoyable, and in fact probably more accessible to a modern audience than even Rashomon — but a close reading reveals so much intricacy and craft, so much to parse out with one detail always hiding another fascinating one underneath, that the conclusion one must draw is that Kurosawa, like Alfred Hitchcock, simply wasn’t capable of making a thoughtless film… and this particular popcorn fable is as probing and insightful as any more ambitious or sweeping narrative in his filmography. There’s no denying how much pure style plays a role in its appeal, but style is also scarcely the point.
A nervous young police detective named Murakami (the frantic Toshiro Mifune) is going about his life in the cocky mode of a boisterous kid who’s proud of his job before he knows how to do it, when his world is disrupted by an incident on cramped public transport: the gun he was issued by the department, clumsily thrown in his coat pocket, is nipped by someone in the crowd, and his quest for it as well as his extreme guilt and feeling of inadequacy when the gun is then used in a series of violent crimes, are the catalyst for our story, as well as the source of his actual growing merit as a cop. What follows is a prototype for virtually every famous, successful, infamous or downright terrible cop (and buddy-cop) picture to hit multiplexes and arthouses in the last seventy years. As much as it calls back to M and The Naked City, it’s in turn a direct antecedent to celebrated genre totems like The Secret in Their Eyes (yes, there is a massive caper scene at a sporting event) and particularly David Fincher’s Se7en, which swipes numerous scenes directly from this film: the discovery of sinister notes written by a suspect, the increasing rapport between a hotheaded young cop who can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s not so different from the criminal he’s after and the seasoned veteran (Takashi Shimura here, Morgan Freeman there; as a bonus, the two have undeniably similar facial expressions) who’s seen it all and knows where it’s leading, the filthy urban chases and grisly crime scenes, and the climactic moment when a man seems to look himself in the face as he serves his definition of justice. But Stray Dog earns a lot more depth from its modesty, specifically from the fact that its course of events is completely set off by a dunderheaded mistake.
And despite Kurosawa’s own criticisms of the story, its characterizations are impressively adept and believably ambiguous; when Murakami becomes obsessed with hunting down the depressive psychopath Yusa, he keeps fixating on the fact that the rage set upon him was triggered superficially by a stolen backpack in the chaotic, impoverished aftermath of the war, something that also happened in identical circumstances to Murakami himself. The elder partner Satō — who’s cool as a cucumber when interviewing suspects, meets the challenges of his job readily and compartmentalizes enough to enjoy a seemingly healthy home life — dismisses these feelings and characterizes the likes of Yusa as “bad guys,” his victims as the absolute good to be protected. Murakami’s not so sure and neither are we, but as in the best filmed arguments of this nature, you see where both of them are coming from. Alas, Murakami’s feeling of odd fusion with the subject of his search is magnified when they finally meet, after Murakami has nearly murdered Satō, and in a scene darkly suggestive of All Quiet on the Western Front (both the Remarque novel and Lewis Milestone’s shattering film adaptation), he sees an untold trauma common to both of them in the perpetrator’s screams of agony and responses to the beautiful natural world to which he’s now experiencing his final glimpses.
This was one of the first detective pictures made in Japan, which is as surprising as the fact that it’s one of Kurosawa’s earliest films — it’s so visually beautiful and seamlessly delivered, a deftly edited and intelligent work of mastery that seems genuinely ageless now, its performances as riveting and its story as strangely gripping as if it were just written and created yesterday. That said, the war is nowhere and yet everywhere, and without it the film would be an entirely different and less emotionally taxing beast.
Whereas Kenji Mizoguchi, in his haunting Women of the Night, and Roberto Rossellini in his War Trilogy (Rome, Open City, Paisan, Germany, Year Zero) had foregrounded and emphasized the effects and aftereffects of war on day-to-day life to great, harrowing effect, Kurosawa’s approach is to allow it to hover just on the edge of the frame, something Alfred Hitchcock had toyed with in Shadow of a Doubt, his busing of noir to the suburbs, as did Carol Reed this same year in The Third Man, a film whose indelible, menacing photography of a city in the grips of crime and ruin functions as a conversation of sorts with this one. We always feel the violence of the recent past, we know what it’s done to these men, and that knowledge tempers everything we see, all of the perverse and beautiful images Kurosawa captures, and everything we hear, the words of broken lives like that of the showgirl Namiki and the embittered arms dealer and the grizzled denizens of run-down motels and street corners. This extends to the final exchange between the two worn-down heroes; Satō is dispensing platitudes about how Murakami’s big arrest of Yusa is just the first of many such triumphs, that they will all run together one day and he’ll become numb to them. Murakami doesn’t respond, and the film abruptly ends, and we’re left to wonder — if you’ll pardon the cliché — who’s been captured by whom.