Stray Dog Movie Review

The tone of Akira Kurosawa's blistering 1949 film noir Stray Dog is set in its opening shot: Over Fumio Hayasaka's sake-drunk, Elmer Bernstein-derived score, a dog pants, tongue lolling to the side in tight close-up, while a narrator intones, "It was an unbearably hot day." It is indeed hot - the film is set amid heat as palpably as Rashomon was the forest - and for young rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), it's going to get hotter still. His problem is that his gun has been stolen, pick-pocketed from him by a lady thief on a packed bus; in a country where competence is famously bound to honor, Murakami loses not just his gun on that sweltering bus, but his pride as well.

Murakami's superior refuses the resignation he proffers, and the hunt is on. In this Murakami is assisted by the older, wiser detective Sato (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), a cop with a less impetuous style. (Any Danny Glover/Mel Gibson correlation you might wish to make here would only cheapen Stray Dog while elevating an undeserving Lethal Weapon series.) The plot is thickened when Murakami's gun (the "stray dog" of the title) is used in brutal assaults on an ever-growing number of innocent female victims.

There's another stray dog here, and it's the WWII-veteran-turned-petty-criminal into whose hands the gun has fallen. "A stray dog," notes Sato, "turns rabid," and so it is that it becomes our heroes' mission to catch the crook before more women die. Kurosawa was a master of the action picture, and in Stray Dog he treats his audience to killing suspense, a colorful cast of underworld supporting players, and gritty documentation of the actual black market slums that sprung up in Tokyo following the war. (Seen today, these last scenes are interesting documents of Japan's real devastation; the Criterion DVD's extensive accompanying commentary reveals that the slums were considered so dangerous that a stand-in was sent for filming in place of Mifune.)

But Kurosawa was a humanist as well, and as the picture progresses Murakami comes to identify with his prey: Both are young veterans of the war and, coincidentally, both had their belongings stolen from them on the train while returning from service. Kurosawa invites us to speculate that in a war-ravaged nation, the path a young man chooses is as much a matter of luck as it is character.

As a film noir, Stray Dog is a marvel of efficient, cliffhanger suspense. But it is as a comment on film noir that it becomes a masterpiece. Against the backdrop of a defeated Japan, Kurosawa brings to the fore the emasculation of his hero at the hands of treacherous women - a theme that served as a context for all great noir - in the simple symbolism of the loss of a gun. It's no accident that it is women who fall victim to this stray dog (a symbol of sexual irresponsibility in itself), nor that it is women exclusively who hold the keys to its recovery. Poor Murakami can't handle these femmes fatale: He goes in blazing like a kid and gets nowhere. It's Sato who brings patience to the interviews; he flatters the women, visits with them, and ends up getting what he wants.

Aka Nora inu.

Comments

Stray Dog Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1949

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