Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stray Dog (1949)

(aka Nora inu)
“Someone stole your gun?”
The police lieutenant asks rookie homicide cop Murakami (Toshirô Mifume)

With that opening line, master director and auteur Akira Kurosawa thrusts us into Stray Dog.

A semi-documentary police procedural set in Tokyo four years after WWII, the film features several elements of the film noir style, in narrative, setting, character psychology, theme, mood, and visual composition. It also displays neo-realism, in the first act. It is an early Kurosawa work of art.

After the opening scene in the police station, Kurosawa uses flashback, voice-over narration, and fast-paced scenes to show how the rookie cop lost his gun. A pickpocket stole it on a crowded bus and passed it onto a thug.

Feeling shamed and disgraced, the rookie cop becomes fixated with the loss and recovery of his pistol, a seven-shot Colt automatic. The obsessive fixation torments and propels him through Tokyo’s postwar netherworld and towards a self-inflicted near psychological breakdown, as he desperately searches for his gun.

Working with larceny police, Murakami identifies the pickpocket, a middle-aged woman, who initially does not admit to her misdeed. He tails her throughout the day and night, anxious for leads. Tired of his persistent tailing, she tells the rookie to hang around the black markets to lure out illegal gun dealers. The yakuza gangs are trading guns for food ration cards.

Disguised as a down-and-out ex-solider, the rookie cop takes us through Tokyo’s black markets. The excursion is a remarkable eight and ½-minute sequence of neo-realism, shot by assistant director Ishiro Honda (who later directed Godzilla). He concealed a handheld camera in a box wrapped in carrying cloth to shoot the documentary of Tokyo’s black markets - havens of survival for untold many in a defeated, dislocated postwar Japan - a noir setting.

As we follow the rookie cop, we see the street markets, flophouses, shop houses, amusement parlors, brothels, dancehalls, bars, and nightclubs. It’s crowded and claustrophobic, a chaotic swirling atmosphere. We encounter yakuza, street hawkers, drifters, the unemployed, the destitute, ex-service men, street kids, gangs, hustlers, mama-sans and prostitutes. We hear chugging trains, train whistles, the hustle and bustle of street life, postwar Japanese pop songs, and newly imported American big band swing drifting from the bars and nightclubs. In a surreal scene, we see Murakami’s searching eyeballs superimposed on frames of crowds in the market. The entire black market sequence introduces us to a distressed society. It is on-location social commentary, a realistic backdrop, which sets up the main theme.

As Murakami rests next to a bombed-out fountain, a street punk asks him if he wants a gun, and sets up a meeting with a gunrunner. In a restaurant, the rookie meets the gunrunner, a young woman, and arrests her, but misses the boss gun dealer sitting nearby. Murakami’s inexperience as a cop is obvious, even to the lowest of criminals. “Man, you are a real amateur,” she blurts.

The plot turns. Back at police HQ, Murakami learns his stolen Colt was used in a crime. With honor and face lost, he offers his resignation, but his police lieutenant tears up the resignation letter and says, “Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you going to let it destroy you?”

Concerned about the novice’s state of mind, the police lieutenant assigns Murakami to work with verteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) to track down and capture the criminal Yusa (Isao Kimura), who commits several crimes with the stolen gun. Together, Murakami and Sato pursue the hoodlum.

Sato is a clever, patient, streetwise detective, who sees the world in terms of good and bad guys, and he doesn’t like the bad guys. He believes people are shaped by their own moral choices, not by their circumstances. In contrast, the inexperienced, ambivalent rookie cop believes difficult circumstances force people into making flawed choices.

The differing worldviews explore the central theme of the film - moral existential choice in the face of difficult circumstance. Kurosawa also examines the theme in Drunken Angel (1948), a noir that stars Mifune as a tubercular yakuza and Shimura as an alcoholic doctor. And again, he presents existential choice in High and Low (1963), a fast-paced kidnap noir. The auteur effectively uses the question of moral choice to draw viewers deeper into his stories.

With each of Yusa’s crimes including armed robberies and murder, the rookie cop blames himself. Tormented by the guilt of his stolen pistol, the novice cop falls deeper into anguish and despair with each crime. An unwitting softy, Murakami sets himself up for a psychological fall.

As the young cop learns more about Yusa during the investigation, he identifies with the hooligan and even feels sorry for him. The rookie and Yusa are defeated, disillusioned war veterans. Both had all of their belongings stolen on their return from the war. Both are in their twenties. The rookie copper believes he himself could have become a criminal. They are almost the same. They are cast from the same mold, but chose different paths at the existential crossroads. Although we do not physically see the criminal until the end of the movie, we see snippets of the criminal’s state of mind through the rookie cop, as the investigation proceeds. During dinner in Sato’s home, Sato warns the novice cop about sentimental thinking, and says, “Thinking like that won’t get you anywhere as a cop.”

Toshirô Mifune’s performance as the rookie cop is energetic and intense, displaying several facets and levels of anxiousness, distress, and despair. His artistic emotional range is wide and deep. We wonder about his character being tough enough to make it as a homicide cop; the character struggles internally. As counterpoint, Takashi Shimura performs as a reliable mentor, sage, and teacher - cool, shrewd, and wise. He is a steady character. Mifune and Shimura’s interactions are synergistic: A + B = C. They display a master - apprentice relationship with intricate subtlety…mentor-student, elder-younger, father-son, experienced-inexperienced, superior-subordinate. These two are not standard-issue Hollywood ‘crime doesn’t pay’ G-men mannequins. In addition, Keiko Awaji turns in a convincing performance as Yusa’s moll. She was only 16, when the film was made.

Stray Dog is visually striking. Kurosawa is an artist of scene composition, using a wide range of cinematographic techniques. Throughout the film, he paints beautiful compositions of groups of people, often using deep focus frames. Foreground, middle ground, and background are flush with rich detail. In addition, he changes story pace and tension, slowing down and speeding up with imaginative editing.

And throughout, Kurosawa employs dashes of expressionism to render subjective view and mood. He delivers close-ups of sweating faces, recurring shots of walking feet, high and low angle shots, night shots, raking shadows, chiaroscuro backlit silhouettes, and dreamlike scenes. We often see his characters masked through curtains, fish tanks, glass shelves, electric fans, stair railings, metal fences, screens, windows, and crowds. Characters are regularly hemmed in, cramped within frames. On the verge of guilt-ridden breakdown, Murakami stands silhouetted seen through a rain-soaked mesh grid, confined and noir, and then, he sits in a gloomy stairwell, head in hands.

Drawing on weather as allegory, Kurosawa turns up the heat to discomfort viewers - perhaps a metaphor for the distress of a postwar society surviving on food ration cards and black markets. Throughout the film, sweating characters continually fan themselves, turn electric fans towards their faces, and wipe their necks and heads with handkerchiefs. We feel the hot humid heat via our mirror neurons. He also uses clouds and rain to foreshadow conflict, create mood, and mark turning points in the drama. Dark rain pounds on windows and bodies.

At the right moments, Kurosawa uses musical and visual counterpoint to raise dramatic tension and excite the viewer. He applies sound and music as ‘multipliers’ (his term) to punctuate visual drama towards the end of the film.

In the background of a suspense building deep focus frame, we see Sato in a hotel phone booth trying to call Murakami. In the foreground, the hotel manager flirts with a young desk clerk swaying to the lighthearted song La Palma, while immediately off frame the killer lurks. Kurosawa disorients us, playing with our emotional empathy for Sato’s impeding predicament. Suspense hits the boiling point. Then, the auteur cuts to the rookie cop on the other end of the telephone line. From the rookie cop’s view, we hear gunshots over the phone while La Palma plays in background - a masterstroke of sound to create dread, helplessness, and guilt.

At the climactic moment of Stray Dog, Kurosawa again uses musical and visual counterpoint. Strains of Mozart piano lace a stylized samurai-like showdown in the woods. Next, schoolchildren sing, while a good guy and a bad guy struggle in a field of flowers - a far departure from the gritty noir city. They are trancelike scenes that etch deep into the subconscious.

Stray Dog contains dozens of exceptional scenes. It is cinematic art.

Kurosawa’s aesthetic training was well rounded. Before he entered the film industry as an assistant director in 1936 at P.C.L., he was an artist, influenced by Japanese and Western art. In addition, when Kurosawa was a teenager, his older brother took him to the movies often. He saw the silent films of the great visual directors including Robert Wiene, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Cecille B. DeMille, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, and John Ford. Kurosawa credits Renoir and Ford as major influences.

Kurosawa was also a screenwriter. He wrote Stray Dog first as a novel, then afterwards as a screenplay. As an assistant director in his early formative years at P.C.L. and during the war, he wrote several screenplays, becoming an effective visual storyteller. His mentor and director, Kajiro Yamamoto said, “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” Kurosawa admired and studied the detective novels of Georges Simenon, and read Dashiell Hammett. In his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote about his interest in hard-boiled detective novels. He believed they instruct in their use of “nuanced action and dialogue” to describe the psychology of characters.

Stray Dog soars above many of the police semi-documentary film noirs of its era and today, because of its energetic narrative, enduring themes, well performed multifaceted characters, and cinematic beauty.


  1. I NEED to see this. I have enjoyed other Kurosawa film noir and I hear this one is his best. Great review!

  2. My husband and I watched this last night. We are serious noir fans, but we watched it because Kurosawa is always on our video menu. And when you throw in a young and gorgeous Mifume, it was a must-watch. Imagine our surprise to find a beautiful marriage between classic Japanese legend and noir. The post WWII atmosphere adds many subtle layers to the Japanese legend component and Kuro's personal take on noir is a fresh but respectful approach to an essentially American form of film drama.


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