Tokyo steams, Mifune screams, Shimura beams
Stray Dog (1949), Kurosawa’s ninth film, is generally considered his first masterpiece, or at least the first for which the term can be reasonably argued. And no wonder. All the elements that would distinguish his later work are in place. There’s the epic sweep, in which a very personal story focusing on a troubled individual(s) is told against a grand background, in this case the panorama of a defeated and humiliated occupied Japan. Dostoyevskian themes and motifs — humanism, class conflict, masculine pain and guilt, doppelgangers — abound. There are stellar performances throughout, including the first great teaming of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura (in their fourth appearance together in a Kurosawa film). And of course the film’s elaborate visuals, formal complexities, and dramatic pacing announce a career that would be internationally acclaimed with Rashomon just a year later. If he misjudges or overdoes a few of the effects, as I believe he does, these are minor failures in a generally masterful work.
In interviews, Kurosawa claimed several inspirations for Stray Dog, most importantly Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) with its realist thrust and the novels of Georges Simenon for their meticulous proceduralism. That said, the film is not a whodunit in any real sense. It’s beholden neither to the strict realism of the Dassin nor to the mechanical policier approach of Simenon. Kurosawa’s canvas is ultimately larger than its influences, exploring not just the existential angst of a policeman whose stolen gun is being used in a series of terrible crimes, but also the epic hell of postwar Japanese society.
The film begins in July with a seemingly trivial tragedy. Rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has had his gun stolen in a hot, crowded bus. (Guns were, of course, scarce in postwar Japan, available mainly to police and on the black market, so this is a much bigger deal than it might seem.) Murakami is unable to catch the thief despite an exhausting chase, and he returns to the station humiliated and ready to resign. Denied this penance, he continues the search, checking records, discovering suspects, and in a wonderful sequence that begins the film’s tour of postwar Tokyo, following a hardboiled female criminal through the homely housing of Tokyo in hopes of harassing her into a confession. This sequence ends in one of the director’s trademark magical moments when she relaxes and tells Murakami some of what she knows, stretching back to gaze wonderingly at the night sky. It also presages the film’s bravura 8-1/2 minute survey of the slums and black markets of Tokyo.
This sequence, shot by Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame, is like an anti-travelogue for a ruined city. Honda had to shoot in secret, as these were actual black markets full of criminals, whores, vagrants, and other social cast-offs. The camera unflinchingly shows the crush of humanity — lines of dirty urchins; flophouses crammed with the poor; ex-soldiers standing idly on the streets; furtive transactions; all set against a backdrop of clogged, grimy alleys in Tokyo’s killing summer heat. Everything that once-proud, orderly Japanese society had become by this time is on display here in tableaux that are echoed throughout the film, and offer a key motivation for the crimes of the gun-thief.
Murakami’s tormented journey into these “lower depths” — his disguise as a “desperate soldier” becomes increasingly real — is crucial to understanding the world the film is trying to create and to Murakami’s psychology. His search for the missing gun, an emblem of his (and presumably Japan’s) lost power, becomes a mania, and he himself becomes linked both in his own mind and by the gun with the criminal who is using it to rob and kill. In a classic doppelganger trope, both the thief, Yusa (Isao Kimura), and Murakami were soldiers; both had their knapsacks stolen on the train that brought them from the war to their home. But Yusa, we eventually are told, “chose” a life of crime, while Murakami, faced with the same dismal society that could not assimilate its soldiers, chose to become a detective. Yet the film takes pains to show that Yusa’s path was inevitable, the result of social forces that could not be overcome. Murakami was one of the lucky few to get a job of any kind at a time when American control was iron.
Murakami’s progress in locating the elusive Yusa starts in earnest when he’s assigned to a more seasoned inspector, Sato (Takashi Shimura), who begins the dual process of helping Murakami find the thief and recover the gun, and helping the younger man mature as a detective and a human being. Their interplay, the classic simpatico/clash between the thoughtful, mature teacher and the rash, obsessive youth, is one of the pleasures of Stray Dog. Takashi Shimura was never better, capturing his character in simple gestures like wiping his arms, or gazing at Mifune with the indulgence of a loving father. They also share one of the film’s loveliest moments when, from behind a delicate gauzy curtain, they watch Sato’s children sleeping — a quiet reminder that there is as always a future, and it may be different.
That future depends, it seems, on eradicating the rogue element in Japanese society represented by Murakami’s thief, the unassimilable soldier who fought a failed war. Kurosawa doesn’t neglect the technical aspects of this process, though they’re always secondary to the epic and psychological elements. There are classic scenes of ballistics analysis that recall the U.S. “docu noirs” of the late 1940s, and a “bullet countdown” motif — Murakami’s gun had all seven bullets when stolen, and he nervously counts them down as each new crime is revealed. But more important here is the rookie cop’s slow unraveling as he closes in on Yusa. His adoption of a soldier’s guise gives the usually scrubbed detective a much grungier look, making him seem less an interloper than an authentic member of the poverty-choked netherworld he’s infiltrating in his search for the gun.
The search brings him to his nemesis’ girlfriend, Harumi (Keiko Awaji). The film uses one of their scenes together to brilliantly play the class card. Harumi, like many Japanese women at the time, had one foot in the criminal world as a means of survival. In an occupied country this was crucial. One of the products of this alliance is a hopelessly expensive dress Yusa bought her, after seeing her admire it in a shop. In a scene at once magical and horrific, she puts on the dress and twirls through a shadow-drenched room reminiscent of a shadow-swathed Gothic castle chamber, screaming “I’m happy!” Murakami’s assumptions about free will (he “chose” his job while Yusa “chose” to be a criminal) are challenged by this vivid act. Is Harumi’s possession of the dress really a crime? Is Yusa a criminal for stealing the money to buy it for her? How many others don’t have what the want or need? The answers aren’t as easy now for Murakami, and the pressure shows in what looks like a state of barely controlled hysteria that increasingly marks him.
Yusa, though not seen entirely until the film’s last few minutes, is gradually revealed in a kind of off-screen portrait that humanizes him, in the process linking him closer to Murakami. Both are seen as nervous, emotional, almost hysterical men. Yusa’s mother tells the detective, “I found him sitting here in the dark, crying…” Harumi describes his anguish at her desire for the dress, and the viewer is left to fill in the emotions Yusa must have felt between seeing her and the dress, and his purchase of it a week later with stolen money. The fateful meeting between Yusa and Murakami is the literal high point of the film, but perhaps represents an overreaching by Kurosawa. Yusa’s breakdown is a marvel to behold, but the oppositional images in this sequence, flowers and butterflies contrasted with bullets and bruises, hammer the viewer and threaten to overwhelm the emotions. Kurosawa’s operatic tendencies serve most of the film, but look out of place in the crucial meeting of these enemies who are so much alike. What saves the scene are a fine performance by Kimura in a very brief role, and superb work throughout by Mifune, who, only 29 here, established himself as one of the screen’s most accomplished actors.
Criterion’s DVD does middling justice to the film, given the lack of really outstanding source materials. This reasonably sharp transfer is advertised as a “new high definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound,” and we have to believe this is the case considering previous versions. A half-hour documentary interviews some of the cast and crew, including actress Keiko Awaji) and provides some excellent background. An enclosed booklet excerpts the Stray Dog section from Kurosawa’s autobiography, and includes a decent essay on the film by Terence Rafferty. The outstanding extra here, though, is undoubtedly Stephen Prince’s running commentary, which elucidates every imaginable aspect of the film from historical background to production information to visual style. Prince has done other Kurosawa commentaries, and nobody else should be allowed near future DVDs by the master. List price is $39.95, cheaper at the usual online venues.