Akira Kurosawa: Stray Dog (1949) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
27Jul/120

Akira Kurosawa: Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog is a full-fledged, traditional film noir from Kurosawa that shows—much like the sometimes deceptively close link between his coming samurai films and American Westerns—that he can take established genres, work within them with incredible efficiency, and still manage to make them his own (or, as with his samurai westerns, elevate them to an entirely new level). This one doesn't quite lift itself completely above the established noir conventions, but it does make use of them in a compelling fashion that continues his post-war commentary in a way we haven't quite seen before.

The movie is pure film noir from the start, with a dramatic narration filled with over-saturated descriptions and complaints about the heat. I don't have the exact lines in front of me, but I believe it starts with something like, “It was hot that day” or “We were in the middle of a terrible heatwave” (which, of course you were, but that begs the question, can I just not think of any classic noir films set in winter? It seems like prime noir season). The lines are uttered with nonchalance. You can almost hear a cigarette crackling and a lighter clicking in the background. The music is a bit much.

In a curious move that shows that Kurosawa is still playing with the conventions of his chosen genre, this voiceover is quickly abandoned after less than a minute, never to return for the duration of the movie. This makes way for two nearly wordless sequences early on that brilliantly set the stage for the rest of the story, define its central character in basic terms, clearly establish the engine of the plot—the theft of a police officer's gun and his desperate hunt to get it back—and show Kurosawa being more experimental with montage and cutting than in his previous films.

These two sequences feature the police officer whose gun has been stolen (played by Toshiro Mifune, still not yet fully transformed into future maniac samurai) tailing a women he suspects has information. This establishes his tireless determination, which borders on clueless stubbornness as he simply wears down his mark. By the end of the movie it will have transformed into patient, heroic resolve, and Kurosawa stages this transformation not through a change in Mifune's character, but by changing the challenges he is faced with and their escalating consequences.There is a second sequence following this showing Mifune's Detective Murakami wandering through the city into some of it's lower class districts, disguised and attempting to find criminal gun merchants in an attempt to recover his stolen Colt. This portion of the film shows a Japan more alive and active, but no less ragged and hopeless than in Drunken Angel. His descent through the different socio-economic levels of the city in this section is brilliant. No words are required, and Kurosawa is working with images in a way that is as telling as it is captivating.

All of this early material sets the scene for what the movie is really about, which is the line up to which an individual may be lead by his or her circumstances, but must cross themselves, and what this means both for the individual and the society they are a part of. Mid-way through the film—and my only complaint with Stray Dog is that is spends a bit too much time in police procedural territory as the two leads follow who turns out to be an inconsequential character, when the workmanlike detective scenes could have been worked effectively into material more closely involving their eventual adversary—Mifune's character and his partner, the archetypal older, wiser cop played by Takashi Shimura, visit the home of the suspect they are hunting, and his family tells them that since the war he has been in decline. They mention that he blames the war for his problems, but does nothing to help himself, and this first instance of Kurosawa taking a “stop blaming the war” stance is what distinguishes this film from some of the others we've recently discussed.This paves the way for an ideological debate between Murakami and Sato (Shimura's character), in which the former suggests that “there are no bad men, only bad situations” and that the war “turned many men into beasts.” Sato disagrees, telling him that as a police officer one must not consider the circumstances that lead to a criminal's misdeeds—only how to shield the general public from their actions. He uses the metaphor of a stray dog that left alone long enough will become rabid. (It's interesting that in this metaphor a rabid dog can hardly be held accountable for his actions.)

The rest of the movie features a fairly compelling hunt for the criminal who has ended up with Murakami's gun, which is interwoven with brief glimpses into both men's characters. In a key scene, Murakami reveals that he was subject to the same events and consequences of the war as the man they are hunting, and this throws the earlier metaphor into focus. The point, made with Kurosawa's unique brand of subtlety (which consists of just outright telling you), is essentially that the war created stray dogs of everyone, but only those like the criminal in question turned “rabid.” It's in stark contrast to Drunken Angel and.... that other movie... where the country is in shambles and people simply must do what they can to carry on.

There's plenty more to say here, not the least of which regards how Kurosawa paints a fairly clear, nuanced portrait of the criminal just through the testimony of those who know him, effectively creating a pathetic, tragic character—made tragic by the implication that the war is responsible for much of his current state with the exception of that last final, crucial step—without us ever meeting him. However, I will turn it over to you sir. What did you think?

...THE QUIET DUEL. That was the other post-war movie I was thinking of. I think it was about dueling. I don't remember.Classic film noirs set in winter…well, Fargo is a noir and it is a classic, but I’m not quite sure it’s what you were thinking of.  I’m running dry myself, maybe The Spy Who Came In From The Cold?  The weather in The Third Man looks less than charitable for the film’s duration, even if there’s a lack of snow.  Uh…Citizen Kane?

Ok.  I’m reaching here, back to the task at hand.

The most memorable scene in all of The Quiet Duel played right after the opening credits and had to do with the squelching heat and corruption of postwar Japan.  Now we’ve got Stray Dog, which managed to make an entire movie out of that heat-wave and, at least to me, was only slightly more memorable.  It’s led me to concoct a theory that Kurosawa works best when the weather surrounding his characters has patterns, or at least is not as consistent as the heat of both The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog.

That said, holy cow Kyle, thanks for leaving me something to type about.  I almost want to take a stance against Stray Dog just so I can rant incoherently for a page or two.  But I can’t muster up that kind of rage for a Kurosawa procedural, especially one that features the memorable moments this does.

I don’t think the broad strokes worked, especially that socio-economic decent you are so fond of, mostly because the moment goes on for far too long.  I love that it plays wordlessly and allows Mifune’s humbled detective to react to the growing squalor and debauchery around him, but the sequence goes on for nearly ten minutes.  I was less “What manner of ungodly temptation will he face next?” and more “That bead of sweat has stayed motionless for the last two wipes.”  The attention to detail Kurosawa lavishes on the descent is admirable, but I was less intrigued than in his other early films.Something about Kurosawa’s procedural films feels a bit more divisive than the rest of his output.  I got a rough feeling of ambivalence.  The voiceover at the beginning was more of someone recounting the story in retrospect instead of watching the film unfold and having the commentary come along with it.  Mifune, while it’s nice to see him have the opportunity to go through a whole film without having to switch into manic, is a boring and fairly straightforward good guy.  Ditto for Shimura’s wise elder cop, he smokes that cigarette with a mean attitude but is all about professionalism and mild deception to get the job done.

Building on your “stop blaming the war” observation comparing the cop and the criminal, one of the only intriguing aspects of Stray Dog continues the evolution of the relationship between the young and old of the wartime generation.  We went from Drunken Angel where the older generation is so toxified by the war that it can’t help but infect the younger, to The Quiet Duel where that same toxification can be stalled but by the two generations working together, and now finally comes to a half-circle in Stray Dog where it shows the older generation mostly in control of the younger one.  There are a few moments where the young’un learns a thing or two from the elder cop, and those come with those subtle lessons that Kurosawa has branded through his entertainment so far.

Basically, I like your idea but I’m not entirely certain that your take on Kurosawa’s dialogue is fitting in with the right movie.  The idea that the war made stray dogs out of everyone is a lot more at home with Drunken Angel where the doctor was an outcast in his respectable community, the gangster was an outlier in a group already on the fringe, and there were signs everywhere of people discarded and rabid because of the war.  Here is felt more like a “father knows best” sort of film, one that doesn’t quite have the same attempted gut punch as the previous two films, and might have worked better if he ratcheted up the tension and left the lessons to the periphery.The wordless descent into the criminal underworld does go on a bit too long, I'll agree—I gave it more of a pass simply because I was interested to see Kurosawa fully indulging a range of visual techniques in the montage that were more experimental and creative than many of the previous films (No Regrets for Our Youth still holds top honors for visual innovation thus far, as its inventiveness is in direct service to the story and emotions/situations of the characters). Here Kurosawa seemed to be playing with montage almost obsessively, from those first two early sequences to a shorter, very effective scene later in the film where townspeople stand around talking about a murder that has been committed with the stolen gun. To your point, and to balance this out, there is also one sequence where he pauses the movie for a good minute straight to show a baseball game.

I don't, however, think that the whole movie was without suspense. The early investigation scenes last too long, but a steady, slow-burning tension builds as Mifune counts down the disasters wrought by his stolen gun. The way he becomes more and more fixated on the number of bullets left seems to be pushing him to some sort of breaking point, which for me created a nice parallel with the thief, who has already crossed the line into criminal acts, the severity of which are escalating.

This growing panic and obsession seem firmly in place for a noir, but result in what was a somewhat unexpected conclusion that plays on the simplified, stereotypical roles you mentioned. Short of being driven across any sort of ethical or moral line, Mifune's character is able to triumphantly catch the thief and redeem himself through sheer determination—seemingly the opposite of the tragic noir hero type who follows his stubborn flaws to his own end. Instead of “Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown,” we appear to get “That'll teach 'em; let's go get some Chinese food champ.”But this is directly undercut by the final scene, which appears at first to be a pre-packaged ending with a generic conversation about duty and how there's always more work to do. Certainly it is this in part—but it's also using the convention here to make the point that Mifune's triumph, the culmination of all their efforts throughout the entire movie, was completely and utterly useless. That's literally how the movie ends. The stereotypical older, seasoned veteran (Shimura) tells the young idealistic rookie what basically equates to, “Good job—you succeeded in not making a single dent in the criminal threat to society.” What interests me is that rather than making this point through the young hero's fall, he overlays it on what is staged as a conventional scene that seems uncomfortable with its positive tone.

Perhaps Kurosawa wasn't doing this consciously—probably wasn't, in fact—but it adds a layer of interest that when taken in context with his other recent post-war films shows a losing struggle with the attitude that perseverance will win the day a la One Wonderful Sunday, The Quiet Duel, and No Regrets for Our Youth. Even Drunken Angel was comfortable with the “do what you can; it probably won't change much, but maybe a little, whatever” sort of attitude. The dissonance in that last scene between what's being said and the tone with which it's presented is fascinating. That wouldn't be enough for me if that was the only point of interest, but I enjoyed the early narrative experimentation and the slow crawl toward panic in Mifune's character toward the end (and the final chase from a train station into an overgrown field) enough that while I'm not going to rank it up there with his best, there was plenty for me to consider. Obviously. Because it just occurred to me that I can't seem to shut up about it.That’s two direct comparisons we’ve made to Chinatown over the last few reviews.  I have a strong urge to watch that in relation to these Kurosawa postwar films, especially given the post –WWII and post-Vietnam timelines we’d be looking at.  But we’re still stuck in the territory of Stray Dog, so that will have to wait for another day.

Kyle, I wish providing a detailed plot synopsis would instill all the tension into the film your description implies.  The problem I had is, outside of the oppressive heat, Kurosawa flattens his characters too much with the camera to really eek a sense of tension out of them and what seems to have worked for you during those extended montages did not work well enough for me.  There was little momentum sprawled in too many directions, confusing the same twisted streets of the underworld with the final showdown, with the plane of action diffusing any possible suspense.  Kurosawa reproduces the methodical rigor of investigation into a hodge podge of distorted chase scenes and climactic duels.  He’s in love with the technique, that much shows in his obsession with reproducing the investigation step by step, but can’t abandon his emotionally fragmented storytelling to heighten the effects of either.   Basically, I wish that the opening chase and descent didn’t mirror the ending conflict and denouement so rigorously because I was having cognitive dissonance of the visual cortex.

Sorry bud, this one didn’t work that well for me and, worse still, I’m more excited about what conversation we’ll have regarding High and Low than revisiting Stray Dog again.

Next week: A controversy rises.  Perhaps.

Posted by Andrew

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