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Stray Dog

Stray Dog(1949)

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teaser Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog (1949), Akira Kurosawa's ninth feature in six years, is a low key thriller set in the uncertainty and turbulence of post-war Tokyo, part film noir and part social commentary with a hard moral. The inspiration for the film came from a real incident. "The original idea for the picture came when I heard about a real detective who was so unfortunate during those days of shortages as to have lost his pistol," explained Kurosawa in an interview. Toshiro Mifune is rookie homicide Detective Murakami, a war veteran whose sloppiness leads to losing his handgun to a pickpocket, a major scandal by itself in 1949 Japan (when guns are worth their weight in gold) but something bordering on tragedy when the gun is used in a series of crimes. Takashi Shimura plays the veteran Detective Sato assigned to mentor Murakami and help him track down the weapon before it is used again. Both actors were veterans of multiple Kurosawa productions and had memorably squared off as the leads of Drunken Angel in 1948. For Stray Dog, their third film together, the relationship was more paternal. The young Mifune projects a marvelous dichotomy as Murakami, his restless energy checked by a veneer of surface calm: the composed social face masking fierce turmoil underneath. Shimura is a complete contrast as his older, wiser mentor: warm and patient, he calms down the anxious, emotionally impulsive rookie cop and channels his efforts to methodically follow the leads.

Kurosawa sets it in the sweltering heat wave of a Tokyo summer and the atmosphere pervades the entire film. The faces on screen are constantly beaded with sweat, the cops mopping their brows and the streets crowded with listless pedestrians brought to a shuffling crawl by the oppressive temperatures. Kurosawa matches the atmosphere to the rising tension and the heat wave breaks in dramatic fashion with the climactic action. The atmosphere only exacerbates Murakami's anxiety and impulsiveness. He's driven by a mixture of shame and duty, afraid he'll be fired and feeling responsible for every crime committed with the gun. ("Was it my gun?" is his first response to every shooting report.) But the gun is also part of his identity as a detective and Murakami, conversely, starts to identify with the criminal he's tracking, who like himself, is a former soldier, driven to desperate measures. Both are, in effect, stray dogs, and as Sato warns Murakami, a stray dog can become a mad dog out of desperation. "There is even a saying about them," Sato muses. "Mad dogs can only see what they are after." Murakami's single-minded pursuit of his gun is in danger of overwhelming his judgment.

Stray Dog is also a shadowy snapshot of post-war urban Tokyo, where the post-war collapse has spawned rampant poverty and crime and the slums are crowded with the desperate and disenfranchised. The film takes us from the down-and-out hustlers and homeless and unemployed survivors of the slums to the warmth of the middle-class home of the veteran detective to a crowded ballpark for a dynamic search in the midst of a baseball game. For one long sequence, Murakami goes undercover as a homeless soldier hoping to make contact with a black market gun dealer. Kurosawa follows him through the slums in a wordless montage that goes on for ten long minutes, a sequence that strains audience patience in an effort to illustrate Murakami's endurance. It's a dramatic miscalculation on Kurosawa's part but it does offer a visual record of the era with a remarkably vivid portrait of an entire underclass in the margins of society. Ishiro Honda, the future director of Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961) and dozens of successful science fiction thrillers and monster movies, was Kurosawa's chief assistant and entrusted by the director to shoot all of the second unit footage in the rubble of Tokyo. He even doubled for Mifune for long shots and close-ups of dragging feet, shuffling down the alleys. "I'm told that I captured the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo very well in Stray Dog," Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography, "and, if so, I owe a great deal of that success to Honda."

Kurosawa cast a pair of newcomers as his second leads. Isao Kimura made his screen debut as the criminal Yusa and apparently made a great impression on Kurosawa, who subsequently cast him in substantial roles in such films as Ikiru (1952), High and Low (1963) and The Seven Samurai (1954), where he played the young, love-struck samurai. Keiko Awaji, the sixteen-year-old dancer who plays Yusa's showgirl girlfriend, made a much less favorable impression. "This ingnue was spoiled enough to be a full measure of trouble," Kurosawa recalled in his autobiography, and the actress confirmed in an interview years later: "Every time I remember that picture, I am impressed by how childishly I behaved." Though she apparently won over much of the crew by the time she finished shooting her role and went on to a very successful film career, Kurosawa never cast her again.

Talking about Stray Dog in the early sixties with scholar Donald Richie, Kurosawa recalled the film with some dissatisfaction. "I wanted to make a film in the manner of [Georges] Simenon, but I failed. Everyone likes the picture but I don't. It's just too technical." Audiences and critics disagree. It was a hit in Japan and placed third on Kinema Jumpo's annual "Best Ten" list. Japanese film scholar and Kurosawa authority Donald Richie called the film "probably the best detective picture ever made in Japan." Even Kurosawa himself warmed to the film by the time he wrote his autobiography. "The filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule. The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the completed film." Yet it was not seen in the United States until 1963, more than ten years later. It took the international success of Rashomon (1950) to make Akira Kurosawa a name outside of Japan and even longer, apparently, for the United States to catch up with his earlier films, especially those contemporary pictures without samurai warriors.

Producer: Sojiro Motoki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Film Editing: Toshio Goto, Yoshi Sugihara
Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Det. Murakami), Takashi Shimura (Det. Sato), Keiko Awaji (Harumi Namaki, showgirl), Eiko Miyoshi (Harumi's mother), Noriko Sengoku (Girl), Fumiko Honma (Wooden Tub Shop woman).

by Sean Axmaker

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