Stray Dog April 20, 2017
But, of course, it’s needless to attempt to compare Stray Dog to works coming after it, considering that it, undoubtedly, was the influencer and not the influenced. It is one of the best film noirs ever made, a poisonous cocktail without the glamorous flavorings of its American counterparts. Additionally a precursor to the police procedurals and buddy cop television shows and movies to become famous in the coming decades, Stray Dog is all innovation and passion. In trying to pay tribute to a specific genre, Kurosawa comes up with an unequalled, unforgettable masterwork.
It revolves around Detective Murakami (a superbly frantic Toshiro Mifune), an upstart in a panic after his pistol is stolen by a young hood during a trolley ride. Though he chases the pickpocket, the hunt proves unfruitful and the officer is forced to crawl back to headquarters shamefacedly.
Determined to regain his dignity, Murakami becomes obsessed with finding the gun. The next few days are spent entirely sifting through the backstreets of Tokyo, itself in the midst of a heat wave, looking for potential leads. Eventually, he's able to piece together enough fragments to cobble together a sort of trail.
But the investigation sours when his gun’s bullets are found at a crime scene. Aware that he cannot easily handle the aftereffects of the turn of events by himself, Murakami partners with Detective Satō (an effectively weary Takashi Shimura), a law enforcement veteran, to put an end to what soon proves to be a spree.
And yet for all its archaic noir trappings, Stray Dog never approximates itself to the lows of a potboiler. On the surface, it's a marvelously crafted police procedural. But centrally, it's a story about post-war disaffection at odds with youthful idealism, respectively represented by Satō’s fatigued exterior and inherent pessimism and Murakami’s aspirational attitudes and compassionate leanings.
Murakami believes that there is no such thing as bad man — bad situations are what make a criminal. Satō conversely concludes that thinking and feeling too much on the job is a surefire way to sabotage your own efficiency. Protecting the masses is of utmost priority, not sympathizing with the struggling men endangering those said masses.
But Kurosawa never gives off the overt impression that his allegorical ideas are of greater importance than the pulpier aspects of the storyline. He intertwines his philosophies with popcorn-baiting diversion that ensures that “crime doesn’t pay” messages are never obvious. Pretense never gets the best of the material, and Stray Dog remains wondrously absorbing in part because Kurosawa so thoroughly explores the intricacies of the psyches of his characters and in part because the story itself is such an anxious take on detective movie fodder.
Though he had been working steadily in his native Japan for nearly a decade, it was the one-two punch of Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog that cemented Kurosawa’s status as one of most talented filmmakers of his generation. For years, though, Kurosawa himself did not hold Stray Dog in as high regard as so many of his biggest fans. Until ultimately noting in his 1982 autobiography that production was harmonious and that he could feel the enthusiasm of the cast and crew in the finished product, he considered Stray Dog to be too technical, too style heavy, to work as well as he might have liked.
Kurosawa would soon reach even higher artistic heights, particularly through his perfection of the samurai film with 1954’s wildly influential Seven Samurai. But Stray Dog, for its claustrophobia, desperation, and disenchantment, continues to radiate. Nobody does post-war discontent better, and I suppose it takes someone less self-doubting to come to such a conclusion. A
inda like how the best features of latter-day auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson conjoin the greatest aspects of their favorite films to create one game-changing whole, Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) feels like several films assimilated into one new, cohesive speciality.
While in the pre-stages of production, Kurosawa purportedly was inspired
by Jules Dassin’s gritty The Naked City (1948) and the legendary detective novels of Georges Simenon. His intent: make something of a film noir infused with the painfully real waves of disillusionment which swept over Japan following World War II. And in watching Stray Dog was I reminded of the newspaper noirs of Fritz Lang and the nightmarishness of Pickup on South Street-era Samuel Fuller. It's like an unusually naturalistic American noir rooted in another culture.