Cast & Crew
In Tokyo just after World War II, Murakami, a recently appointed detective, has his gun stolen by a woman on a bus. Because pistols are scarce in postwar Japan, Murakami, afraid of losing his job, begins to hunt for the gun. He later finds the woman, but she has sold the gun to a fence who in turn has passed it on to a young hoodlum. The gun, loaded with seven bullets, is first used in a stickup in which a girl is wounded. Murakami, with the help of Sato, an older detective, finds Harumi, the hoodlum's girl friend, and when the second bullet is used to kill a young housewife, Harumi gives the detectives the hoodlum's former address. With this information Sato traces the criminal to his current address, but the hoodlum uses the third and fourth bullets to shoot and seriously wound Sato as he is telephoning Murakami. Harumi tells Murakami that the hoodlum is to meet her at a train station, and he goes in her place. The criminal wounds the detective with the fifth bullet, but when he misses with the sixth and seventh Murakami overpowers and arrests him.
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 ingénue 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
Released in Japan in October 1949 as Nora inu.