Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa and Ryūzō Kikushima
Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai
Producer: Sojiro Motoki
by Jon Cvack
Stray Dog is the movie that brought the Detective film to Japan and joins the handful of other Kurosawa films that took place within modern settings - joining Drunken Angel (1948), High and Low (1963), Ikiru (1952), and The Bad Sleep Well (1960); formats which leave you wishing for more from the same period. The movie opens in close up on a rabid stray dog, panting for air under the hot son. We meet the rookie homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) who lost his Colt pistol after being pick pocketed on the trolley; scared that he’s going to lose his job, or worse, that gun could be used in a crime. Reporting the issue to his superior, he heads out into the humid and unbearably hot streets to track it down.
From the get go, the movie reminds you of John C. Reilly’s character in Magnolia (1999) who met a similar fate; replacing the Murakami’s cockiness with an aloof determination to get featured on Cops. Murakami is a desperate man, as much concerned for the consequences as losing his opportunity to be a cop; which being filmed just a year after surrendering to the United States, is one of the few secure jobs a man could find in the post-war country.
Soon Murakami’s worst nightmare comes to life when he discovers the gun had been used in a crime - fired, though no one got killed. He matches the bullet by returning to the firing range and remembering how he caught a stray bullet in a tree stump. It’s a bit silly given how many bullets must have been fired, but the bullets match and Murakami gets all the closer.
One of the first suspects he pursues is a girl he recalls from the trolley who’s part of the underground nightclub scene around town, soon leading him into an underground network of criminals and illicit arms trade. Hitting a wall, Murakami is paired up with frequent Kurosawa collaborator Satō (Takashi Shimura) and the two zero in on a suspect - a faceless man in a white linen suit who they track to a baseball game, providing - as a fan - one of the more exciting sequences of the film (Kurosawa would hire newsreel men to film an actual baseball game; going to show how long and how popular the sport is in Japan).
They lose track of the suspect but end up getting in touch with a prostitute he’s been known to associate with, Harumi Nukami (Keiko Awaji) who inform them that the man’s name is Yusa (Isao Kimura); a former WWII veteran who struggled with adjusting back to civilian life, turning to a life of crime. They soon discover that the Colt has been fired again, this time meeting Murakami’s worst fear in being used as a murder weapon.
Satō heads back to talk again with Nukami, hoping she’ll reveal some details. When she finally does and Satō tries to call Murakami, Yusa arrives, overhearing that he’s a cop and shoots Satō, leaving him to bleed out to death. The next day, Nukami finally comes around and confesses to Murakami on where to find Yusa; who’s taking a train out of town. Having been pursued throughout the night, Murakami says that Yusa would have dirtied up his white linen suit and sure enough, in an exciting sequence, as Murakami looks at each man who’re all dressed in similar pale or white suits, Yusa turns out the window, revealing the mud all over his clothes.
In a brutal final sequence, Murakami chases Yusa through the forest before Yusa fires at Murakami with his own gun, catching him in the stomach. Murakami wrestles him to the ground and as he attempts to choke Murakami to death, a band of young school girls and their teacher wander far in the distance behind; lending that great irony that only the masters could pull off.
The plot is familiar enough, and yet like most of Kurosawa’s work, the narrative is decades ahead of its era. Released in 1949, to consider this film was made while America still occupied Japan and that the filmmakers actually went out into the streets to grab the footage, all contribute to the grittiness not seen for another thirty years later with films such as Dirty Harry (1971), Chinatown (1974), or The French Connection (1971). It’s a film that would launch the entire genre in Japan; where like any historic paradigm shifting piece of cinema, Stray Dog created many of the archetypes and tropes still used today It’s not Kurosawa’s best film, but by far one of his most influential - at least in the realm of crime drama.
BELOW: Best scene of the movie
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.