January 6, 2003
Akira Kurosawa made Stay Dog (1949) only a few years after World War II while Japan was still occupied by Allied forces. He used the genre trappings of a crime thriller to comment on the post-war conditions of his country. The Criterion Collection has released this fascinating film with a solid transfer and with a few extras that put it in the proper historical and social context of its times.
One hot, summer day rookie cop Murakami (Mifune) has his gun stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Wracked with guilt, he becomes obsessed with the notion that a criminal is out there, committing crimes with his weapon. Veteran cop, Sato (Shimura), is working on a case that coincidentally involves Murakami’s stolen gun. The two men team up and begin to piece things together.
Toshiro Mifune plays a very different role then the tough samurais that made him famous. In Stray Dog, he plays an earnest and inexperienced young man who, at one point, tries to follow a potential suspect only to be led on a wild goose chase all over the city. His cop is completely naïve to how the criminal underworld operates and so fellow cops and even criminals show him the ropes.
Takashi Shimura is excellent as the older, wiser cop who mentors Murakami. Sato shows him how to properly interrogate a witness by subtly coaxing the information out of someone. Shimura plays his character as a laid-back man who is always thinking, always contemplating his next move.
Stray Dog features some superb black and white cinematography as Akira Kurosawa creates one of the earliest Japanese film noirs. Like all great noirs, he creates an ominous mood and atmosphere through the use of light and shadows. He uses the daylight scenes to convey an oppressive heat that affects everyone—beads of sweat drip off people’s faces and Sato constantly wipes his face with a handkerchief. It is an almost tangible feeling.
One of the things that made Kurosawa such a masterful filmmaker is that he implicitly understood that he worked in a visual medium. There is an excellent montage that lasts for several minutes without any dialogue as an undercover Murakami scours every nook and cranny of the city looking for any clues as to the whereabouts of his missing gun. The sequence traces his regression from looking too clean and obvious to being dirty and disheveled, sleeping in his own clothes.
What makes Stray Dog stand out from other buddy cop films is that Kurosawa takes the time for the audience to get to know Murakami and Sato. One such scene has Sato inviting the younger cop to his home where he meets the man’s family and has dinner with them. Sato tries to impart a little of the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years. As he tells Murakami at one point, “There’s no help for a cop who doesn’t believe he’s protecting the masses.”
There is an excellent printed booklet that features a well-written essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty and an excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography that focuses on the making of Stray Dog. These are both excellent primers for anyone is not familiar with this movie.
Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, provides an excellent audio commentary. He explains that like the Italian Neo-Realists, Kurosawa took his camera to the streets and showed the effects of World War II on his country. He also talks about how Kurosawa first wrote Stray Dog as a novel and then adapted it into a screenplay. Prince does an excellent job of dissecting and analyzing the filmmaker’s techniques and themes. He also goes into detail about Japanese culture and history and how Kurosawa’s film was a snap shot of its times.
Also included is a segment from the documentary series, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” It sheds light on several fascinating aspects of the Stray Dog. For example, the movie was based on a real incident where a police officer had his gun stolen. Kurosawa’s film was also the first Japanese police drama. This is an interesting, in-depth look at the origins of the movie and acts as the perfect companion to the audio commentary.
Stray Dog is an excellent example of Akira Kurosawa’s versatility—especially if one is only familiar with his samurai films. It is an engrossing thriller with a central character who is obsessed with justice and redemption.