Stray Dog (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s ninth film is one of my personal favorites. I love a good police procedural, and Stray Dog is one of the best.
Kurosawa originally wrote Stray Dog as a novel. He was influenced by the Inspector Maigret novels by French writer Georges Simenon. In the 1960s, in an interview with Donald Richie, Kurosawa expressed his disappointment about the film. “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed,” he said. “Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.”
I think it’s good for artists to be their own harshest critics, but in this case I think the public is right. Kurosawa may have failed to make the film he wanted, but he succeeded in making a great film nevertheless. For my money, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel (1948) are Kurosawa’s two earliest masterpieces.
Like The Naked City (1948), which was one of the first police procedural movies, Stray Dog pairs an older, seasoned detective with a younger, inexperienced detective. They’re played by Kurosawa regulars Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune.
If you’ve seen Seven Samurai (1954), you know Shimura as the de facto leader of the samurai (he’s the one with the shaved head) and you know Mifune as the wild and unpredictable odd man out.
Shimura and Mifune played variations on this relationship in numerous Kurosawa films. In Drunken Angel Shimura was an alcoholic physician who struggled to convince the swaggering young gangster played by Mifune that he had to treat his tuberculosis. In The Quiet Duel (1949), Mifune played a young surgeon desperate to keep his syphilis infection a secret, and Shimura played his father and the head of their medical practice.
In Stray Dog, Shimura plays Detective Sato and Mifune plays Detective Murakami. Their relationship has elements from their previous two collaborations with Kurosawa, but there’s a playfulness and sense of humor that was absent from both Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel.
The film begins when Murakami’s service weapon is stolen, and Murakami’s shame is more than he can bear. The little .25 caliber Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Its magazine was loaded with all seven rounds. After the weapon is used in a mugging, Murakami writes a resignation letter, but his lieutenant rips up the letter and advises him that catching the thief would be a better form of penance.
Stray Dog presents a panoramic view of postwar Japan. Unlike the huge cesspool in Drunken Angel that functioned as a grim and fairly obvious metaphor for life during the American occupation, Stray Dog presents a world that has changed forever, in ways both good and bad.
After Murakami makes a positive identification of a female suspect, another detective who is familiar with the woman is surprised to learn that she was wearing a dress, since she always wore a kimono in the past. Murakami assures the older detective that she was wearing a Western-style dress, and that she had a perm and stank of perfume. The older detective shakes his head and observes that times have certainly changed.
When Murakami goes undercover to track the passage of the stolen pistol through the black market, we see one destitute person after another in a series of dissolves. Life is not easy for most people after the war.
But there’s also the sense of life returning to normal. Sato and Murakami track a suspect to a baseball game and keep him under observation in the stands. This tense sequence features seamlessly integrated 16mm footage of an actual game between the Nankai Hawks and the Yomiuri Giants. The players all have numbers on their uniforms, which was forbidden as “too individualistic” during World War II.
I think that Stray Dog presents a more realistic view of police psychology than The Naked City. After Murakami and Sato narrow down their search to a single suspect, Murakami feels sympathy for the man. Like Murakami, the criminal is also a returning serviceman, and Murakami thinks that he could have easily become a criminal if he hadn’t become a cop. As his stolen Colt is used in a series of increasingly brutal crimes, he feels responsible for each one. Sato tells him to leave the psychoanalysis to detective novels and just focus on arresting the bad guys. Sato says that Murakami will never forget his first arrest, but after each subsequent collar he will grow less and less sentimental.
Sato has a much lighter touch than Murakami. When we first see him, he is laughing and sharing popsicles with the female suspect who Murakami got nothing from after leaning on her too hard. Sato’s way with suspects appears more lenient than Murakami’s, but it’s because he has a much better idea of what he’s doing.
Murakami is dogged but fairly incompetent in the early stretches of the film, but as he learns from Sato he becomes more patient and observant. A young person learning from a seasoned veteran is one of the oldest stories in the book, but it’s a damned good one when told well, and Kurosawa told stories extremely well.
In addition to the convincing performances and the involving story, Stray Dog is a triumph of atmosphere. The film takes place in the hottest days of summer, and Kurosawa never lets the viewer forget it. The opening shot is a closeup of a dog lying on the ground and panting. The first words we hear from the narrator are, “It was an unbearably hot day.” In nearly ever scene there is something that conveys the humidity and languor — people fanning themselves, sweat glistening on faces and staining clothing, men mopping themselves with handkerchiefs and rolling up their sleeves. When a chorus of scantily clad showgirls led by the beautiful and petulant Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji) traipse off stage and collapse on the floor, their flesh is beaded with perspiration.
At just over two hours, Stray Dog is a long movie, but even in the stretches where not much happens there’s always a sense of forward movement conveyed by well-paced edits, frequent dissolves, and wipes to transition from one scene to another. (Kurosawa loved wipes.)
Fumio Hayasaka’s score conveys tension and excitement, but it’s used judiciously. Kurosawa also makes great use of diegetic music in the film’s two climactic scenes. In the first, the heat has finally broken and there is a tremendous rainstorm as the radio in a hotel lobby plays Sebastián Yradier’s “La Paloma” in the background. In the second climactic scene, Murakami confronts his quarry behind a house where a young woman is playing Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in C Major, Op. 20 No. 1. The music tinkles out of an open window, its serenity at odds with the violent confrontation that is about to explode.
Stray Dog is one of the best police procedurals of all time, but like a lot of great films it transcends its own genre to tell a universal story.
Starting in 1950 with Rashômon, Kurosawa would gain more and more attention worldwide as he produced one great film after another. Stray Dog was one of the last films Kurosawa made that was pretty much unknown outside of Japan until the 1960s. It’s still not as widely seen as his best-known films, so if you like Japanese cinema and haven’t seen it yet, you have something to look forward to.