By Edward Robert Brydalski
Stray Dog (1949) is one of director Akira Kurosawa’s earliest and most overshadowed works. Coming from the director that would make several of what are considered by many to be the greatest films of all time, his early period police procedural may seem quaint to us these days. Grittily depicting the sweaty criminal underbelly of post-war Japan, this film proves that there is still great value to be found in Kurosawa’s early work.
The film stars the venerable Toshiro Mifune as the rookie detective Murakami who, in the middle of a heat wave, has to dredge through Japan’s criminal underworld in search of his stolen Colt pistol. After going deep undercover for days, he teams up with veteran detective Sato, played by Takashi Shimura. They discover that Murakami’s Colt was used in a recent crime and eventually a murder. With the bodies piling up, the guilty Murakami and cool-headed Sato spearhead the investigation, risking life and limb to retrieve the Colt and stop yet another criminal on the streets of Tokyo.
While the overarching narrative seems atypically straightforward for Kurosawa, his engaging style comes into play on a scene-to-scene basis. The silent, nine-minute-long investigation scene, the strangely fantastical dress spinning scene, and the nail-bitingly tense hotel rain scene all provide highly memorable lines, locations, and events.
Every actor is well cast and incredibly played. Mifune, while less experienced than in his later Kurosawa roles, plays the rookie cop angle perfectly and looks good doing it. Shimura’s face, body language, and line delivery all perfectly match his character’s role as the jaded veteran detective; simply looking to get things done his way before retiring to his wife and kids. Isao Kimura, who plays the Colt thief, delivers a wonderful performance, with their blood curdling, bestial screams perfectly concluding the climax.
Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning. His use of low-angle shots in the depiction of Tokyo street-life provides a gritty and realistic feel that can hardly be matched. He even mirrors Kurosawa’s zeal in the depiction of the weather, making one of the sweatiest films of all time.
Indeed, the use of weather as a highlighting element can be seen throughout the film. The heat affects all the characters’ moods, and attitudes; acting as yet another weight around Murakami’s neck in his quest for the Colt. The use of rain and thunder, while sparse, punctuates crescendos of emotion and action.
Still, Stray Dog does have some pacing issues as a result of its editing. It feels like Murakami accomplishes almost nothing in the first 30 minutes of the film and several scenes seem to drag on only in service of reaffirming the heat.
Despite its minor flaws, Stray Dog was received extremely favorably at the time of release. It won awards for best actor, best film score, best cinematography, and best art direction at the 1950 Mainichi Film Concours.
Furthermore, it acted as the main template and inspiration for the future buddy cop genre; inadvertently spawning such major blockbuster films as Rush Hour, Bad Boys, and Men in Black.
But despite all the well-deserved praise, this film is not perfect. It’s use of the number of bullets in the missing Colt as a ticking clock is creative and engaging, but makes little sense in hindsight. What if the Colt thief bought more bullets? What if they shot it more without Murakami knowing?
Moreover, what’s at stake seems almost pointless these days. Especially from my American perspective where one more gun on the street is akin to a drop of water in an ocean, one missing Colt seems like an unrealistic motivator for the extreme dedication and relentlessness displayed by Murakami.
Even Kurosawa himself had less favorable opinions on this work, calling it “Too technical” and stating that it had “all that technique and not one real thought in it.”
These are valid criticisms as the final moral of the film remains unclear. While Sato lays in a bed, he plainly states his belief that all criminals are unchanging scum. Murakami looks out the window, not necessarily agreeing. Was Sato’s opinions reflective of Kurosawa’s? Does Kurosawa directly acknowledge his viewpoint through any of the characters? No one knows.
But not being told who’s right and who’s wrong is exactly what appeals the most to me the most in a film such as this.
Stray Dog draws no lines between what makes one person good and another person bad. Instead it opts to present people’s paths as thin, malleable branches stemming from a tree of uncontrollable contexts. Perhaps we have the strength to triumph through our situation; perhaps not. But one thing is for certain: It’s damn hot out today.